Copping an Attitude

What happens when the object of your road rage turns out to be an off-duty police officer? Bad things.

Ignacio Fiterre is about as unlikely a candidate to assault a police officer as one could find. The 52-year-old well-dressed industrial engineer is short and pudgy, his thinning hair a distinguished shade of gray -- hardly the image of a menace to society. In his spare time, in fact, he volunteers with the Coral Gables Police Department's mobile patrol program. So Fiterre was understandably shocked and more than a little outraged when he found himself pushed up against his car, his arms immobilized by police handcuffs that bit painfully into his wrists. His indignation at what he describes as a terrifying and humiliating experience has spurred investigations by three governmental agencies and is instigating procedural changes at the Metro-Dade Police Department.

On Sunday, September 15, 1996, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Fiterre and his wife were driving north on the Palmetto Expressway in their 1984 white Mercedes-Benz. According to Fiterre, a late-model blue Chrysler merging from the Dolphin Expressway abruptly cut in front of him. Off-duty Metro-Dade Police Ofcr. Alejandro Celaya sat on the passenger side, his wife at the wheel. (In an interview with police investigators four months after the incident, Celaya said his wife accelerated and merged into the flow of traffic without incident.)

Fiterre reacted by switching lanes, driving past the officer's car, and returning to the right lane as they both exited the expressway at NW 25th Street. In Celaya's sworn testimony, he claimed Fiterre abruptly cut in front of his vehicle while moving into the right lane, forcing his wife to slam on the brakes to avoid colliding with the Mercedes.

When they reached a traffic light, Celaya's car pulled along the driver's side of Fiterre's. The officer, dressed in civilian clothes, flashed his badge. Celaya told police investigators that Fiterre responded by "flipping him off," which consisted of placing his hand under his chin and "thrusting it forward."

Fiterre says he put his fingers to his mouth, kissed the tips, then opened his hand. This gesture, he insists, was meant to placate Celaya, not antagonize him. Regardless, he had no intention of stopping if that is what Celaya had intended by showing his badge. As a volunteer with the Coral Gables mobile patrol program, Fiterre says, he was taught that a driver should never stop when someone in street clothes and in an ordinary car displays a police badge. (Celaya claimed to investigators that it was not his goal to stop Fiterre, which would have violated department policy for off-duty officers.)

Undeterred, Fiterre continued on to his destination -- the main post office on NW 72nd Avenue. Celaya testified that he told his wife to follow Fiterre; she pulled into a parking space in front of the post office and they waited as the Fiterres went inside. Upon discovering there was no Sunday express mail at the main branch, the Fiterres decided to try the post office at Miami International Airport.

In the vicinity of NW Sixteenth Street, Fiterre glanced in his rearview mirror and discovered with alarm that the blue Chrysler was trailing him. Fearful that he and his wife were about to be robbed, Fiterre called 911 on his cellular phone. A dispatcher told him to drive as fast as he could to the nearest police station, in this case the Doral station located at 9101 NW 25th St.

Around the same time, Celaya used his own cellular phone to report a felony -- automotive assault against a police officer. Celaya provided the tag number and the location of the Mercedes and requested that other units respond and stop Fiterre's vehicle.

Fiterre executed a quick U-turn and bolted through a stop sign in his haste to get to the safety of the Doral station. When a police cruiser with flashing lights pulled behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief, believing an efficient Metro-Dade Police Department had responded quickly to his 911 call. After pulling over, he stepped out of his car to talk with the two uniformed officers.

But instead of acting the part of rescuer, one of the officers shouted at a bewildered Fiterre, grabbed him roughly, shoved him against his car, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. (The experience so traumatized Fiterre's wife she would not allow her husband's photograph to appear in this story for fear of retribution.)

According to testimony given to investigators by the police officers involved, Celaya's car pulled up to the scene. Soon another police cruiser joined the group. The two officers from the second car queried Celaya while a supervisor who had traveled with them observed from across the street.

At least one of the police officers, later interviewed by Metro's internal affairs unit, said Celaya told him that Fiterre tried to run him off the road. Though Celaya demanded that the officer arrest Fiterre, his colleagues decided there was no basis to do so and they uncuffed him. They did, however, write Fiterre a reckless-driving citation for following too closely, running a stop sign, and exceeding the speed limit. To no avail Fiterre protested that he drove fast only at the suggestion of the police dispatcher in an effort to flee his pursuer.

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