By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
his week I wanted to praise the City of North Miami and its police department for firing Det. Fred St. Amand. Instead I find myself once again wondering if anyone in that city -- the mayor, the city manager, the police chief, the city attorney -- understands the difference between right and wrong, and if they can grasp just how far out of bounds they are now straying.
The decision to fire St. Amand was a good one, albeit for the wrong reason. The city fired St. Amand because he had become an embarrassment and a liability. As much as the chief and others in the department tried over the years to conceal the detective's failings, the truth eventually surfaced: St. Amand was a bad cop.
He may have been the highest-ranking Haitian officer in the department, but he was also a glory hound, always looking for praise but unwilling to perform the less glamorous aspects of his job with the department's domestic-violence squad. He ignored complaints from women who were attacked or threatened by their boyfriends and husbands because investigating such incidents wouldn't bring him the attention he craved. Even more shocking was his willingness to write misleading and possibly fraudulent reports that led his superiors to believe he indeed was examining these tales of abuse.
Only after some of the victims complained that no police officer had contacted them to investigate their allegations did the department realize what St. Amand was doing, or more accurately, what he wasn't doing. He should have been fired on the spot. Instead his misconduct was covered up.
St. Amand, who had been honored as Officer of the Year in 1998, comes from a wealthy and influential Haitian family; his father harbors aspirations to run for a seat on the city council. Firing or even disciplining St. Amand might have been the right thing to do, but it could have caused problems in a city with a large and politically active Haitian population and a police department with a history of racial tensions.
I don't know whether such considerations originated solely with Police Chief Tom Hood or whether they were passed along by City Manager Lee Feldman, but today both men must be held accountable for the consequences.
St. Amand remained on the force, and (surprise!) before long it became clear that the contempt he displayed toward women was not limited to crime victims; he demonstrated a similar lack of respect toward his female co-workers. According to the sworn statements of at least five women, St. Amand repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances and bragged about his sexual prowess in lewd and graphic terms. He is even alleged to have attempted to seduce a seventeen-year-old girl who was part of the police department's youth Explorer program.
None of these revelations should have shocked his superiors, however. They had been given plenty of notice that St. Amand had a serious problem with women. But they did little about it. And then came the allegations of Cheryl Wolosz, who accused St. Amand of exposing himself to her in the police station and then masturbating. Not once, not twice, but three times.
Wolosz, a code enforcement officer for the city, told several people about St. Amand's behavior, among them Ofcr. Christine Casas and Sgt. Neal Cuevas. Given the police department's record of covering up for St. Amand, Wolosz was reluctant to report him to the internal affairs unit, which investigates complaints against officers. Casas and Cuevas made it clear to Wolosz that she could not keep this information to herself, and she must report it. If she didn't feel comfortable keeping it within the department, she should go to the State Attorney's Office (SAO).
That's exactly what Wolosz did. And once word of St. Amand's conduct spread outside the department, he was finished. Soon all St. Amand's secrets, which his superiors had been sweeping under their semen-stained rug, were finally exposed. Although prosecutors at the SAO decided not to charge St. Amand with a crime, they noted in a stinging memorandum that the evidence they gathered "indicates that St. Amand has a serious problem and should not be working alone with female crime victims and co-workers." Prosecutors went on to say that "action should be taken administratively to ensure the safety of any females who come into contact with [St. Amand] in connection with his duties."
Once the prosecutors' findings were made public, there was nothing the police chief or the city manager could do to protect St. Amand. So they fired him.
But rather than let the story end there, Chief Hood launched his own internal affairs investigation against Officer Casas and Sergeant Cuevas. By encouraging Wolosz to go to the SAO, Casas and Cuevas circumvented the department's formal chain of command, and in the chief's view, that was cause for punishment, possibly even termination.
As far as I'm concerned, Casas and Cuevas should be given commendations. They could have ignored Wolosz, pretended not to hear what she had to say, and allowed a bad cop to remain on the force. Make no mistake about it: There is no greater threat to the public than a bad cop left unchecked.
But Casas and Cuevas didn't ignore Wolosz. They counseled her that she had a moral obligation to come forward. And they were right in doing so. When Wolosz expressed reservations about reporting the problem internally, they recommended she go to the State Attorney's Office. They were right in doing that as well. If they hadn't made that recommendation, they would have been derelict in their duty.
Being right isn't always popular, though, and in this instance Casas and Cuevas's actions ultimately embarrassed their chief. If Chief Hood had any sense of honor, he would have swallowed his pride, acknowledged his department had made a mistake in fostering the perception that St. Amand was politically protected, and moved on. Instead the chief has loudly announced that his ego is more important than his honor.
The internal affairs investigation of Casas and Cuevas has been a witch hunt. The vengeance with which the department has gone after them, particularly Cuevas, raises the possibility that other, even more insidious motivations may be at work. Hood may be using the Wolosz-St. Amand episode as a pretext for ousting Cuevas, who for years has been an irritant to the department's good ol' boy clique.
Cuevas joined the North Miami Police Department 25 years ago. He was just twenty years old then, and was the city's first Hispanic officer. To his credit he persevered amid the racism that marked the department then and which lingers today. (Last year seven black police officers, St. Amand not among them, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.) As a sergeant Cuevas is the highest-ranking Hispanic on the force. He claims the department refused to consider him for promotion to lieutenant in 1996 because of his ethnicity, and so he too filed a complaint with the EEOC. He subsequently sued the city; that case is pending.
From 1988 to 1995, Cuevas was president of his department's police union. As someone who fought for the rights of his fellow officers, he frequently clashed with the top brass. Now, in helping Wolosz, Cuevas has given his superiors a cowardly excuse to come after him.
In the case of Casas, the department seems equally petty and vindictive. The 34-year-old Casas has been on the force five years. Most recently she was assigned to the anti-drug DARE unit, working with local school children. This past summer, shortly after her role in helping Wolosz became known, she was abruptly transferred out of the unit. Casas not only loved working for DARE (something her supervisors knew), but apparently she also was quite good at it.
"She was wonderful," says Jorge Garcia, principal of Natural Bridge Elementary, one of the schools with which she was involved. "She worked well with the kids and the teachers. I have nothing but positive things to say about her." Adds Karen Anderson, a sixth-grade teacher at the school: "She was always there for the kids. Anything she could do to help them, she would. And the kids loved her. She had a really good rapport with all of the kids. They really bonded with her."
Removing Casas from the DARE program in July was not just shortsighted; it was also an act of deliberate cruelty. At the time, Casas's mother was dying of cancer. Working weekdays with DARE allowed Casas to care for her on the weekends. Her department superiors knew this as well.
Once she was removed from DARE, Casas no longer had Saturday and Sunday free, so she was forced to hire additional help for her mother. More than the money, though, the schedule change cost Casas time she could have spent with her mother, who died three months later, on November 2. (Neither Casas nor Cuevas were permitted to speak with me while they are under investigation.)
Chief Hood defends his decision to launch an investigation into Casas and Cuevas. "We have procedures that really need to be adhered to," he says. "People should abide by the rules and regulations. We would be remiss if we didn't investigate."
The chief is a cocky guy. Smug, too. Talking to him, I can see why people in his department don't trust him. He's out to show Casas and Cuevas and everyone else under his command that he's still in charge, and that there's a price to pay for making him look like the incompetent police administrator he is.
For a time Cheryl Wolosz herself was under investigation by the department for taking her complaint to the State Attorney's Office. Wolosz received official notification that her actions were under review, but that was quickly dropped. Someone must have convinced the chief that harassing the victim in the St. Amand case probably wasn't a wise public-relations move.
The department instead zeroed in on Cuevas and Casas. The internal affairs case against Cuevas is the furthest along. He has been accused of violating a slew of administrative procedures, all of which spring from his advice to Wolosz that she should consider taking her complaint to the SAO. Most of those violations carry only limited penalties, at most a brief suspension.
One charge is different, however, and it reveals just how desperately the department wants to get rid of Cuevas. An internal affairs review panel has accused him of committing perjury.
Cuevas's position on this subject has been straightforward. On May 28 Christine Casas came to him and said a friend was being harassed by an officer. Casas didn't identify the friend, and Cuevas initially thought she was talking about herself. The next day Casas brought in Wolosz to speak with Cuevas. During that discussion Wolosz didn't name St. Amand as the offending officer. Cuevas outlined several options for her, including one in which she would report the incidents to the State Attorney's Office. After that, Cuevas contends, he was out of it. A few days later Wolosz went to the State Attorney's Office, and rumors began flying around the department.
In an attempt to nail Cuevas for perjury, the department asked him when he learned that Wolosz had gone to the State Attorney's Office. Cuevas said he learned of that on June 24. But internal affairs investigators have a sworn statement from Sgt. Ronald Simpson in which he claimed he and Cuevas talked about the State Attorney's investigation on June 10. In his statement Simpson said Cuevas mentioned both Wolosz and St. Amand.
"Did he tell you anything else about the investigation?"
"Just that it was out of the department's hands, that it was going to the State Attorney's Office," Simpson said.
"So he knew that the state attorney was investigating it?"
Great evidence, huh? Setting aside for a moment the fact that portions of Simpson's statement contradict an earlier statement he'd given, let's examine precisely what he said. According to Simpson, Cuevas said, "[I]t was going to the State Attorney's Office." Those words -- going to -- express what Cuevas believed would happen, not what he knew for a fact had already happened.
Simpson was then asked a leading question that completely altered the meaning of his previous remark: "So he knew that the state attorney was investigating it?"
Trying to fire a 25-year veteran of the department, take away his pension, and risk his certification as a police officer over this sort of semantic trickery is simply outrageous. If Chief Hood thinks Cuevas committed perjury, he should send that allegation to the SAO to investigate and prosecute criminally. But Hood won't do that because he knows the allegation is bullshit. Instead he'll use some trumped-up administrative panel he and the city manager can manipulate to get rid of Cuevas.
Last week Cuevas and his lawyer made their own presentation to Hood and other senior members of the department. A decision by Hood on Cuevas's fate could come at any time.
The person who should be expressing the most outrage on this matter hasn't said a word so far. I'll give Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle the benefit of the doubt and assume she is unaware of what's happening in North Miami. She was out of town last week.
Unfortunately in Rundle's absence the spokesman for the office, Don Ungurait, offered an entirely inadequate statement on her behalf. "We really are not going to weigh in on an internal administrative problem for the North Miami Police Department," he said. "We have no opinion or comment." And if the officers are punished for recommending that a crime be reported to the State Attorney's Office? "That's for the police department to decide," he replied.
Those answers are not only wrong, they are deeply disturbing.
If Rundle does not "weigh in" on this case, she will be doing harm to herself and her office. She has worked diligently over the past several years to restore the public's confidence in her willingness to root out bad cops. In fact she and her prosecutors have demonstrated real courage in pursuing certain cases, particularly those involving officers who use "throw down" guns to cover up mistaken shootings. Such strides, however, can be lost in an instant.
If Rundle today won't protect police officers who risk their careers by voluntarily bringing her evidence against bad cops, even if that sidesteps their department's formal chain of command, no cop in his right mind will do so in the future. If she won't provide support for Casas and Cuevas, either publicly through the media or privately via a few well-placed phone calls to North Miami officials, then she needs to think about whether she really wants to be State Attorney for Miami-Dade County.
This is no time for Rundle to sit mute with neither an opinion nor a comment, for Chief Hood's actions represent a direct challenge to her authority. He is sending a message to every officer in his department: If you go to the State Attorney's Office with a complaint, I will wreak havoc on your life.
Surely Rundle will understand that this isn't just some small-town dispute. Much more is at stake than the careers of a couple of North Miami cops. Every police chief and every officer in the county will be watching what happens next. We all will.