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At 7:00 p.m. on April 10, a crowd of well-heeled residents gathered in the Key Biscayne Village Hall. Impeccably tanned women and men in pressed chinos nibbled on crudités staffers laid out, while sipping complimentary sodas. The atmosphere was more cocktail hour than monthly village council meeting. The pressing issue that night: whether to light the village green at night for flag-football games.
This, after all, is the summer home of presidents. The site of international tennis tournaments. A caviar Mayberry.
Which is precisely why Michael Flaherty took the post of police chief here nearly a decade ago. Key Biscayne couldn't be further from the racially divided Maryland county where he previously served as chief. There Flaherty worried about drive-by shootings and federal investigations into police brutality. Here the cops try to discourage speeding.
But Flaherty currently is dealing with one rather unpleasant matter as chief: He's fending off a lawsuit filed by a police officer he fired last year. And Jackie Rojas, the cop in question, is hoping to put some furrows in Flaherty's brow. She portrays the department as the kind of place where the chief orders his underlings to sue his enemies, fires them for disloyalty, and where the atmosphere is so lax officers sleep on the job. Flaherty denies these claims. He says the lawsuit hardly is a cause for anxiety: "No, this is not stressful. These are common problems you deal with in law enforcement." His broad, ruddy face crinkles into a smile. Four fishing rods leaning against the wall in his office speak to his other priorities.
Still it would be hard to deny that Flaherty is beginning to learn a familiar lesson: The life of a police chief in South Florida has an uncanny way of becoming tangled in controversy, even in a sedate enclave like Key Biscayne.
When she was ten years old, Jacqueline Rojas lived next door to a Miami motorcycle cop. She began dreaming of one day becoming a police officer. "I wanted to be a female police officer in Miami," the 38-year-old says. "That's what kept me going through school. I think what pushed it was that my brother was killed by a drunk driver when I was nineteen years old."
She joined the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP)in 1987 and stayed for ten contentious years. "I walked into an organization where the good-old-boy mentality was alive and well," she charges. "I clashed with some supervisors. I always spoke my mind. I never disobeyed an order, but I'd tell them if I disagreed with one." Some of her supervisors had a different take on her. Her personnel file contains at least seven internal affairs inquiries, two of which were sustained, both for minor offenses. Then there was the Kmart case.
In 1994 a Kmart employee arrested for stealing told police that Rojas and another trooper who worked off-duty security at the store also had stolen items. Rojas was accused of taking a children's bicycle. An internal-affairs inquiry cleared her when she produced a sales receipt for it. Afterward Rojas sued Kmart and won a settlement, which she says is confidential. Ultimately, she believes, it was clear she was not wanted at the FHP. In 1997 a friend told her the Key Biscayne Police Department was looking to hire women, so she sent an application.
Rojas wasn't hired right away. In her first interview with Chief Flaherty, he asked if there was anything he should know about her background. She says she gave him the Kmart file. Weeks later the chief called to say he wasn't going to hire her because of disciplinary information in her personnel file. She requested a meeting to respond to his concerns. "He called me in for a stress-voice analyzer, primarily because of Kmart," she asserts. "I passed that."
A week later Flaherty called to offer her a job. Before applying, she says, she hadn't even known the island had its own police force.
Until a decade ago Key Biscayne was part of unincorporated Dade County, sort of its master-bedroom community. President Richard Nixon kept a home there. The island has long been a popular safe haven for Latin America's aristocracy. The international Lipton Tennis Tournament (now called the Ericsson Open) is held there. But residents, most of them wealthy, thought they would be better off on their own. A secession movement started, and the county eventually allowed Key Biscayne to incorporate as its own municipality in 1991. As intended, real estate taxes have declined steadily since.
One of the first orders of business for the new village -- after it decided not to contract with the county for law enforcement -- was to create a police department. To do that they needed a chief. The village manager conducted a nationwide search -- they wanted the best and were willing to pay for top talent. "This is a high-end community, and we demand good services," says village Manager Sam Kissinger.
Michael Flaherty was looking for a job. In 1989 he had resigned from the Prince George County Police Department, just outside Washington, D.C. During his 24 years on that force, the last 6 as chief, Flaherty had seen the worst that inner-city America could throw at a cop. In the Eighties the murder rate exploded owing to the crack-cocaine epidemic. Friends of his were killed in the line of duty. Colleagues were arrested and investigated for brutality, even for killing suspects, always black. In a volatile place, Flaherty earned a reputation as a troubleshooter.