Under Suspicion

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

But a series of arrests this past year only exacerbates suspicions about the substation.

In November north district Ofcr. Webert Celestin was charged with stealing money from an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer. In May Ofcr. Damon Woodard, from the same substation, was charged with narcotics trafficking after South Carolina police say they found five kilos of cocaine in his car. In August Soyica Mincy, a civilian secretary in the department's headquarters, tried to lure a north district officer into a conspiracy involving Mincy's boyfriend to steal from drug dealers, according to prosecutors. Instead the officer turned in Mincy.

And in February of last year Danny Felton, a former north district cop once honored as officer of the month, had his police certificate stripped by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement following five-year-old allegations he stole money from an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer.

Miami's north district substation: In the heart of one of the city's roughest neighborhoods
Steve Satterwhite
Miami's north district substation: In the heart of one of the city's roughest neighborhoods
The north district includes Miami's three northernmost neighborhoods, some of the toughest in the city for a cop to patrol
Enlarge map
The north district includes Miami's three northernmost neighborhoods, some of the toughest in the city for a cop to patrol

Enlarge map

The department's supervisors dismiss the arrests, saying they represent only isolated instances of corruption and don't reflect the north district substation as a whole. "Those cases are not connected," internal-affairs boss Shepard says. "There is nothing to indicate a conspiracy. And there is nothing to indicate lack of supervision is leading officers to do this. Unfortunately we have a couple of bad apples."

But that's not the way some within the department view things. "The whole attitude is, “Yeah, the north end has a bunch of corrupt cops, but we can't do anything about it,'" says a high-ranking member of the department. "The administration needs to go in there and clean house." (Of the four cases mentioned above, only two investigations were generated from within the department: Celestin and Mincy.)

Questions about other officers remain unanswered, a disservice to the officers if they are innocent and to the department if they are not. "If we get an allegation against a police officer, we owe it to everybody to resolve it," says one veteran investigator with more than twenty years on the force. "But there's very little pressure internally to clean up our own act. I think the administration feels that a certain amount of corruption is unavoidable. But there has to be some institutional ethic -- when there's an allegation of wrongdoing, you need to verify it or exonerate the officer. There has to be an absolute fiat from the chief that this won't be tolerated."

Without the decisive resolution of allegations, a pall can follow officers for the rest of their careers.

Indeed strong tips fed to internal affairs appear to have languished so long they now are useless. Here are summaries of just some of the cases officers say the department knows about, but which still are unresolved:•During the John Does investigation, at least three officers were intercepted on wiretaps talking to and setting up meetings with the gang's leaders, according to several sources familiar with the case. Two years later those officers remain on the job.

•A female officer's telephone number was "trapped," using surveillance equipment, in the phone of a high-ranking member of the John Does. Informants told police the two had a personal relationship, and police listening in on wiretapped conversations heard gang members discussing her by name. The information was passed to internal affairs, which to date has not followed up. The officer is still on patrol in the north district.

•One convict, already in jail for ripping off drug dealers with the help of a Miami cop, has identified for New Times at least two other officers he claims to have worked with to steal dope money from dealers. He says he told the department about the officers (a claim confirmed by other sources), but there appears to have been no follow-up investigation.

•A former north district sergeant, who was implicated by an anonymous phone call that led to the discovery of a cache of drugs thirteen years ago, was once involved in a standoff with Metro-Dade police officers responding to his home after his wife called for help, claiming he was beating her. He's since been promoted to lieutenant.

"The majority of cops are honest," says the veteran investigator. "However, there is a small minority that are hoodlums, they're just criminals. That's a percentage that, however small, we need to deal with. If you don't deal with it immediately, you lose your ability to deal with it in the future. And we're not dealing with this problem."

Chief Martinez disagrees that the problem goes beyond a few bad cops. "I don't think there's a [general] problem," the chief says. "We obviously have some problem police officers."

Maj. Adam Burden took command of the north district a little more than a year ago after working as a lieutenant in internal affairs. He agrees with the chief. "As far as the north district as a whole, I don't see a problem," he says. "There's a problem with those officers arrested."

But information gleaned by New Times and interviews with well-placed investigators indicate that in fact there may be an institutional ethic against cleaning house.

To understand the dynamics at work in the city's north end, as it's commonly called, you need to comprehend the racial tightrope the 1100-man Miami Police Department has walked for years.

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