By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
William Oertwig, Jr., is a born-again Christian, a 25-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department, and every speeding motorist's dream come true. For the past two years, the 47-year-old road patrol officer has refused, on principle, to write traffic citations. Although he pulls over drivers for violating the law, he contends his police powers shouldn't be used to collect cash for the county and the state.
“I don't believe compliance is gained by the issuance of a traffic ticket,” says Oertwig, a compact, clean-shaven man with neatly combed steel-gray hair. “I believe that by making the traffic stop, educating and informing the motorist, I am accomplishing traffic enforcement.” Oertwig, who earns $50,000 per year, adds that the training manual his department issues to each officer explicitly states tickets are given at the officer's discretion.
Of course Oertwig's views are not shared by his supervisors at the Cutler Ridge station, where he works. His refusal to cite lawbreakers recently provoked a confrontation with the brass. While his bosses argue that putting pen to paper is part of his duty, he claims they are enforcing a detestable quota system. And, Oertwig contends, police higher-ups have retaliated by demoting him, depriving him of his take-home patrol car, and continually writing him up. On June 19 he sued the county in circuit court under the Whistleblower Act, arguing he is being unfairly punished.
Sgt. John Eckels and Lt. R.J. Brown, who are named in Oertwig's suit, declined to comment. Miami-Dade Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Andreu also refused to say anything about the case, though he replied to Oertwig's allegation that officers are required to write tickets. “We do not have a quota system,” asserts Andreu. But, he adds, supervisors rely on data, such as number of tickets issued and arrests, to determine whether an officer is doing his or her job. And tickets deter speeders and reckless drivers.
Oertwig admits his superiors did not order him to write a specific number of tickets in a given time frame. He contends that “whenever they tell you it's not enough, that's a quota.” Such requirements, while legal, are widely opposed by civil libertarians who argue the practices encourage officers to make bad arrests, and by police unions and officers who complain such systems hinder other law-enforcement activities. Some states, like Wisconsin, have even banned the practice.
“From time to time we do get complaints from officers in departments around the county about quotas,” says John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade County Police Benevolent Association. (Oertwig is not a member.) “Most of the time we straighten it out with letters or a phone call.” While the union opposes policing by the numbers, Rivera says he understands why a supervisor would want to discipline a cop like Oertwig, who so boldly altered the rules of his vocation. “For him to say it's not his job function to write tickets, I don't know if I agree with that. That's how an officer's performance is evaluated.”
Born in Venezuela and raised a Southern Baptist in Miami, Oertwig was born again at age eleven. He calls himself an ambassador of Christ, peppering his speech with biblical references. “As an ambassador, like the Bible says, I should go forth and speak boldly,” he declares. He is married, lives in rural South Miami-Dade, and is a former Sunday-school teacher and Marine reservist. He joined the county police force in 1975 as a spry 22-year-old and has carved out a solid career. He has been rated above satisfactory in fifteen annual reviews. For the rest, excluding this year's, his rating was satisfactory.
His personnel file reveals hints of his personal views. He was suspended for two days in 1995 when he declined to confiscate a shotgun after a woman had fired it during a domestic dispute at a South Miami-Dade home. The woman later told police she had been depressed and was contemplating suicide. Confronted by a sergeant, Oertwig responded, according to disciplinary report, “in a condescending tone of voice regarding the right of any police officer to go to the home of a private citizen and remove their firearms. [Oertwig] opined that all citizens had the right to bear arms.” The file also holds several commendations, including one for a 1999 incident in which he helped capture an AK-47-wielding suspect in a shooting incident.
His time as a road officer has been interspersed with stints as a law-enforcement teacher. After his first seven years on the job, he served five years as a firearms instructor. Then he returned to the road for about eight years, before taking another training position, this time for hand-to-hand combat. About two years ago he returned to patrol duty.
His thinking, he says, is informed by Terry Ingram, a former Hollywood cop who espouses the philosophy of the Freemen, a political movement opposed to paying federal income taxes. Oertwig, who began attending Ingram's seminars three years ago, did not pay a portion of his tax to the Internal Revenue Service, prompting the agency to request Miami-Dade County to dock his pay. The county did so and Oertwig sued on the innovative legal grounds that the county lacks the authority to withhold money without a court order. Oertwig says Ingram has influenced his opinions, but he's no follower. “I'm not a member of anything,” he says.
By the time Oertwig returned to the road in 1998, his views on traffic fines had changed drastically. He called ticketing a revenue-producing scheme. “I'm not a meter maid,” Oertwig scoffs. “When I took this job 25 years ago, I took it as a deputy sheriff to protect and defend not just the Constitution of the United States but the rights of the people. I did not take the job of a revenue-producing agent.”
His refusal to write tickets simmered for nearly two years before his bosses confronted him on February 21, he says. One of his supervisors, Sgt. John Eckels, demanded Oertwig start issuing citations. If he failed to do so, he would be stripped of his acting sergeant status and assigned to desk duty. On March 2 Oertwig sent a letter to Eckels stating: “My understanding of that [conversation] is that you informed me that per Lieutenant Brown I would be transferred from my present assignment in uniform patrol on grounds that I am not writing Uniform Traffic Citations.”
Following his letter to Eckels, Oertwig says Brown called him into his office and told him it was a patrolman's job to write tickets. Eckels then rode with Oertwig. On the officer's annual evaluation on May 20, Sergeant Eckels gave him a less than satisfactory mark, the first such rating in the officer's career. “His productivity in all areas is either poor or nonexistent. Officer Oertwig did not issue a single traffic citation.” He had given 37 warnings to drivers during the year. Even that, according to the department, is an exceptionally low number. Oertwig says he had received mostly satisfactory ratings throughout the year and Eckels's poor review resulted from vindictiveness. On June 2 the department revoked Oertwig's right to take home a patrol vehicle owing to his poor performance. Then, Oertwig says, Eckels began following him to monitor his behavior. “They treated me like a rookie,” he comments.
Beyond his political views, Oertwig says he is motivated by other, loftier, goals. He says he longs for the days when police officers were as widely loved and respected by citizens as firemen. “It is my goal to change the image of police to the public,” he notes. “The public likes firemen because they are there to help. And it dislikes police officers, because generally citizens' only contact with us is when we give them traffic tickets.”