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 September 1999 the Richland County, South Carolina, sheriff's department received a call from a confidential source tipping off cops to a cocaine-smuggling ring in Columbia, a small city just south of the North Carolina border. Deputies first arrested Darren Ford, according to court records, catching him with about half a kilo of cocaine, on October 1, 1999. Ford led them to Roosevelt Petit-Frere, a Haitian American living in Miami. Following up on Petit-Frere's arrest, deputies searched the home of one of Petit-Frere's accomplices in South Carolina and found a black Ford Mustang belonging to 30-year-old Damon Woodard, an eight-year veteran of the Miami Police Department who was working in the north district. Woodard's Florida driver license was in the car and his Fraternal Order of Police insignia was emblazoned on the license plate, court papers state.

The cops went back to Darren Ford and asked him about Woodard. Ford sang like an opera star, according to an affidavit by Miami internal-affairs officer Julio Pinera. The suspect explained that for at least two years Woodard had been ferrying cocaine from Miami to Columbia in the bumper of his car. "Ford stated that Woodard was one of the drivers to transport the cocaine because, since he was a police officer, he would not be searched in case of a traffic stop," Pinera reported. In fact Woodard allegedly hung his Miami Police uniform in the back seat so it would be visible if he were pulled over. Various law enforcement agencies conducted several months of surveillance on Woodard and Petit-Frere, listening to dozens of phone calls, before finally arresting both men. Petit-Frere was charged in South Carolina while Miami police arrested Woodard on May 20, 2000.

Until recently the only investigations of drug-dealing Miami cops that led to any results originated from outside agencies. The State Attorney's Office handled Dan Bailey; the FBI went after Danny Felton. Now it took small-town police to catch Woodard, even though Miami investigators jumped into the case with gusto, obtaining permission for wiretaps, the first time in recent memory they had been used internally. Still, Miami internal affairs hadn't been able to pull off a hit of its own in the north district.

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

That changed in August, when the department arrested civilian secretary Soyica Mincy and her boyfriend, Jerome Mike. According to an arrest report, Mincy approached a north district policewoman on Mike's behalf with a scheme to have the officer pull over her boyfriend as he safeguarded a drug dealer's $50,000. The officer went directly to internal affairs. Mincy and Mike now face charges of unlawful compensation.

But Mincy was small potatoes compared to Webert Celestin, a 33-year-old police officer. Internal-affairs cops nabbed Celestin November 17, 2000, as he showed up to rob some drug dealers, according to an arrest report. Not only had internal affairs investigated Celestin; the unit ran its own undercover sting with help from the FBI and DEA. On October 6 Celestin pulled over a man he thought was a drug dealer carrying $22,000. It was actually an internal-affairs undercover officer. Celestin and his codefendant, Evan Lee Colin, who listed his occupation as a mortgage broker, "conspired to conduct a three kilogram [cocaine] for $60,000 drug transaction with agents of the City of Miami Police Department," the arrest report states, adding that both men planned to "take the agents down at gunpoint and steal the three kilograms of cocaine and the $60,000 cash."

Chief Martinez says he's trying to take advantage of the momentum gained in the Woodard and Celestin cases to streamline the process of firing officers accused of wrongdoing. "It was a longer process in the past," he explains. "It's a complicated administrative task to fire someone that used to be in several steps. Now we've concentrated it to one step. We started doing it with Woodard."

Other changes may be coming. Martinez notes that after an officer is arrested, he reviews the background file to see if the department missed any early-warning signs. In both Celestin and Woodard's case, he points out, there was evidence of bad credit history. "Now we're examining if that should make a person exempt [from hiring]," he says. "If you have a pattern of mismanaging money, that's something we should note."

Martinez adds that he's implementing other changes to thwart corruption. He has beefed up internal affairs, hand-picking two seasoned investigators to bring the squad's total to eight. In fact he says his staff is actively recruiting veteran investigators to join the unit. In the past the department relied on officers to volunteer for the assignment. Specifically regarding the north district, Martinez likes to point out that Maj. Adam Burden was a lieutenant in internal affairs before being assigned as the north district's commander a year ago. "Look, to me this is a problem until we get each and every corrupt officer off the force," the chief stresses. "Unfortunately these are difficult investigations. But I will spend money and use resources to do this."

Some under his command hope so. "I've been involved in over 8000 arrests, I've been shot at numerous times in the line of duty, and I still go out there and try and do a good job," says one veteran investigator. Working alongside cops who can't be trusted puts him in danger, not to mention the public. "I just wonder, by being allowed to remain on the force, how many lives they've ruined," he asks.

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