Keystone Cops at College

University of Miami police claim they are underequipped. Some people want to keep them quiet.

On April 7 Ralph Devito finished a nighttime game of racquetball at a University of Miami gym. On the way to his car he clutched his chest, made a gurgling noise, and fell to the ground. Someone frantically called 911. An emergency dispatcher called Coral Gables medics, the city's police department, and the UM Public Safety Department.

The 49-year-old Devito died that night from a heart attack. In the aftermath UM police officer Andrew Allocco wrote a report questioning whether crucial minutes of response time were lost. His reasoning: Coral Gables and UM police use different radio frequencies, so they couldn't coordinate efforts. Moreover, UM radio is used by other businesses and is often filled with static. Allocco's report was placed in a file available to the public.

Police officials responded to the report swiftly, but not by improving the radio system. They launched an investigation into Allocco's conduct, alleging he violated rules against openly criticizing the department.

The internal affairs probe was the latest volley in a skirmish between the Coral Gables Police Department and their unruly stepchild at UM. For years university officers have complained the campus police force is ill-equipped. Lives are at risk, they contend. A series of cases including three 1996 murders buttress the critics' case. Gables police spokesman Lee Schwartz says the officers' beef is with UM administration. "The university buys their supplies," Schwartz says. "We don't have anything to do with that."

But the UM officers are pursuing an agenda that involves the city. Several who talked with New Times on condition of anonymity contend Coral Gables police weren't completely open during the hiring process. The UM cops believed they were joining the Gables force. They applied for the job at Gables headquarters, Gables officers trained them, and their uniforms are virtually identical to the Gables's -- the sole difference is on the sleeve, where a patch that reads "Univ. of Miami" is stitched beneath "Coral Gables Police."

But the city does not employ UM cops. "When these officers were hired, it was made very clear they were employees of the university," says UM spokesman Dan Kalmanson. The city and the school devised a contract in 1969 that delegates supervision of the UM force to the university. As a result campus police do not receive the same health insurance or pension plans as the Gables force, nor are they allowed to join the Gables police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, in an official capacity; while starting salaries are about the same for both forces, nearly $32,000, UM's has no automatic step increases or merit raises. The university officers are not covered by the state's police Bill of Rights, which guarantees such safeguards as lawyers for officers under internal investigation. "What's sad is that we're not recognized as Coral Gables police until it comes to disciplinary action," opines Allocco, who is 28 years old.

In 1996 seven UM cops, including Allocco, sued the university and city to win status as Gables officers. In the lawsuit, which is slowly winding its way through the courts, the plaintiffs point out that Florida prohibits private institutions such as UM from having their own police forces. University officials counter that their contract with Coral Gables makes this legal. Most private colleges, such as Barry, use security companies. Public universities like Florida International University use a statewide police department. Allocco and his colleagues contend that if they are not full-fledged Gables officers, then their department is illegal. "I would suggest that anyone who has ever been ticketed or arrested by a UM officer get an attorney because in my opinion they've got a lawsuit," Allocco says.

In December 1996 Don Holmes, the Gables FOP president, wrote a memo urging members not to work at UM off-duty. Holmes warned that officers would be taking a risk: "Have you ever read the so-called contract between the City and the UM? I have, and I don't put much faith in its legal integrity."

A year later the family of slain UM football player Marlin Barnes sued the city and then-police chief James Butler. Barnes and friend Timwanika Lumpkins were killed in a campus dorm room on April 13, 1996. The suit, which was recently dismissed and is now under appeal, alleged that Lumpkins and Barnes did not receive the same police protection as other Coral Gables residents. John Leighton, the lawyer for Barnes's family, asserts the UM department is not adequately staffed or equipped. "I wouldn't let my child live on the University of Miami campus, I guarantee you that," he says. UM officers try to do their jobs, he adds, but "the department is grossly deficient. They don't give them the same equipment, including the same radios. Very often the two departments can't communicate with each other."

Kalmanson retorts that the campus is extremely safe. As for the radios, Kalmanson says, "that is an issue we are looking into."

With Devito's death Allocco saw an opportunity to hammer home the dangers of a two-radio system. Allocco's first report, which got him in trouble, began: "This information is being provided to make public the hazardous communication system in effect at Coral Gables Police Department's University of Miami division." The night of Devito's death, Allocco added, an off-duty Gables officer was working for UM across the street from the gym. But the officer never received a call; he didn't have a radio because there weren't enough to go around.

After supervisors informed Allocco he was under investigation, he fired off another missive to the internal affairs division: "It is absurd that officers within the same department are working off two entirely different radio systems. ... One officer cannot reach another for help or aid in a time of emergency." He continued: "This dangerous situation of having two radios was also brought up with the death of Mr. Pawley, a Coral Gables homeowner living a few blocks from the University of Miami." Clifton Pawley was shot to death outside his home April 24, 1996, in a still-unsolved case. "The University Division officers were never advised of the police call being dispatched over the Coral Gables police radio. ... Our officers may have driven right by the murderers without ever knowing it."

Gables internal affairs investigator Walter Money next reviewed Allocco's report on Devito and determined it was rife with inaccuracy. The total response time in the case was six minutes and calls went out almost simultaneously to both police departments, Money wrote in his closing report. The first 911 caller mistakenly indicated that someone had been hit by a ball. If UM officers had received such a call, they likely wouldn't have responded, Money concluded.

What happened this past October 26 illustrates the limbo UM officers endure. After Coral Gables Police Chief James Skinner determined Allocco violated department rules against unauthorized public comment, he couldn't follow up with punishment. "Since Officer Allocco is a full-time employee of the University of Miami, not the CGPD, we are referring the matter of appropriate disciplinary action to you," Skinner wrote to Henry Christiansen, director of UM's public safety department.

In late December Allocco received his penalty: three days suspension with no pay.

tris_korten@miaminewtimes.com

1998

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