Under Suspicion

Despite a history of corruption in its north district substation, the Miami Police Department won't get tough with its own cops

In mid-1998 a handful of federal agents and Miami detectives filed into a room at the FBI's Miami field office for their regular morning briefing. The news awaiting this hand-picked team of cops was enough to make them spit up their coffee.

Those assembled were members of a joint FBI and local task force charged with flushing out the John Does, a violent drug gang running wild on the city's north side. So secretive was their mission that many officers within the Miami Police Department were kept in the dark about the investigation. Apparently with good reason.

After the elite cops settled into their chairs, an FBI supervisor shared disturbing information that had come in overnight. Someone was running surreptitious checks on the license-plate numbers of cars task force members were using in their undercover work.

Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez believes problems in the north district are restricted to a few bad cops
Steve Satterwhite
Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez believes problems in the north district are restricted to a few bad cops

Great pains had been taken to ensure the task force's secrecy, including the use of various rental cars that would not be recognizable to criminals -- or other cops -- in Miami. Agents had asked the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to alert them if anyone used the state's computer system to check on the ownership or pedigree of the cars.

Someone was running the plate numbers through the computer, the supervisor reported that day. And they were doing it from a terminal inside the Miami Police Department's downtown headquarters. The conclusion was inescapable and unsettling: Someone within the police department was apparently spying for the John Does.

"It made everybody aware of what we were dealing with," one task force member recalls. "The first time an officer is confronted by corruption from within his own department it is breathtaking. I was unhappy, but it didn't surprise me. We knew we had a security problem within that department." Some believed the problem was rooted in the Miami Police Department's north district substation, on NW 62nd Street and Tenth Avenue, the heart of John Doe territory.

The neighborhood known as Model City was one of the deadliest places in Miami until a few years ago, thanks to the overarching influence of the narcotics trade. During the reign of the John Does in the mid-Nineties, Model City averaged two to three murders per month, many of them public executions meant to send a message to rivals and the community about who was in charge. NW Fifteenth Avenue was so perilous cops weren't allowed to patrol it alone. "We had to go to two-person patrols there; it was just too dangerous," recalls Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez, who was an assistant chief at the time. The danger was underscored in 1997 when a police officer was shot in the head while sitting in his patrol car on NW Thirteenth Avenue.

When the task force first convened, prevailing opinion held that the John Does couldn't possibly act so brazenly without the complicity of at least some of the officers from the north district. "The idea was: You can't have public executions occurring on a fairly regular basis without some lack in police enforcement," says the task force member. "Probably some combination of corruption and Miami officers scared they would get hurt and afraid they wouldn't get backup in a violent situation."

In fact, according to one source, one of the first things Miami investigators told their FBI counterparts when the task force was formed in 1997 was not to trust the north district cops.

As the investigation would later reveal, there was reason to be suspicious. Not only did the task force have to guard against leaks from inside the department, but north district cops were caught on wiretaps talking to drug dealers, and police equipment was found in a John Doe member's car. For investigators it was a galling irony. While the department was engaged in one of its most successful covert missions, one that single-handedly brought down the death toll by 75 percent in the area, the cops had to be on guard against their very own.

The John Does investigation concluded two years ago and resulted in the conviction of 38 gang members. But remarkably, the Miami Police Department has yet to conclude any investigation into the suspicious behavior task force members uncovered about the department's own officers.

For years there have been rumors about corruption in the north substation -- rumors that, in the opinion of many in law enforcement, were never adequately investigated. The John Does case only bolstered that perception.

The intelligence that someone at police headquarters was running computer checks on undercover cars, for example, was turned over to the department's internal-affairs unit, which investigates allegations of misconduct among officers. But no vigorous effort was ever made to find out who was logging on to the computer to run the checks. "We never heard anything more about it," the task force member recalls. And that, say critics within the police force, is nothing new. Confronted with evidence of possible police corruption or wrongdoing, the critics say, department brass appear unwilling to decisively dig for the truth. For whatever reason the Miami Police Department appears to have little interest in policing itself.

New Times interviewed 40 law enforcement officers and federal agents (nearly all of whom requested they not be identified) and criminals, and reviewed hundreds of pages of public records. What emerged was a pattern of suspicious behavior in the north district substation, and an equally disturbing unwillingness on the part of the Miami department to actually investigate its own. New Times met with Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez; Maj. Paul Shepard, in charge of internal affairs; and Maj. Adam Burden, commander of the north district substation, seeking their comments and allowing them time to refute any allegations. They asserted that any problems at the substation involve a select few officers. They also stressed that all claims of misconduct are thoroughly probed. "Many of those allegations were investigated," Chief Martinez said. "It's one thing to have an allegation and another to prove it."

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