Serpico Negro

Ofcr. Ralph Wilson's two-year South Miami-Dade racial ordeal was a clear case of cop culture at its worst

Cops hate "skels" (misdemeanor lowlifes), "perps" (felony lowlifes), and "short-eyes" (child-abuser pervs). But most of all they hate inside whistleblowers: other cops who go against the "thin blue line" code to turn in fellow officers -- whether it's for drinking, excessive force, or taking bribes. Bob Leuci, for example, the infamous Prince of the City, had to leave the NYPD in the Eighties for turning in corrupt narc squad buddies; Frank Serpico was nearly killed when fellow New York undercovers set him up on a drug bust after he testified about cops on the take in the Seventies. In Miami, beginning in 1998, Ofcr. Ralph Wilson was first shunned, then abused and threatened by colleagues and supervisory personnel at the Cutler Ridge district when he tried to intervene in the case of a black woman who'd seen white cops abusing a black teen. Later he was suspended, and finally fired. Now he's trying to get his job back in a civil suit, but given the closed-ranks mentality of cop culture in a district where white police outnumber blacks 119 to 38, he's having the toughest time of his life.

One late afternoon in early November 1998, Ralph Wilson was patrolling in West Perrine when he saw a woman frantically waving her arms. He pulled his cruiser over and listened as she angrily recounted a scene she'd witnessed a week before: Two white cops were manhandling, beating, choking, and handcuffing a protesting black teenager. Then they made the kid sit in the rain while they filled out their paperwork, before hustling him into their patrol car and speeding off. It wasn't an unusual sight in the high-crime nabe, but it was wrong, the black woman told the black officer. She'd been waiting for a chance to tell someone she felt "comfortable" with.

"I told her to file a complaint, when this cruiser pulls up across the street and parks," Wilson tells New Times. Inside were Ofcrs. Brian Mustacci and Alfredo Palacio, fellow cops Wilson knew from his home station in Cutler Ridge.

Former officer Ralph Wilson: Waiting on justice
Former officer Ralph Wilson: Waiting on justice

"The lady about dropped when she saw them," says Wilson. "She said, “Those were the guys right there!' She was like, “I gotta go,' and made a beeline into her house."

Wilson says he began walking toward the police cruiser, but that Palacio and Mustacci dug out. Surprised, he jumped into his car and followed them until they finally pulled over.

Mustacci and Palacio were extremely belligerent: "They were like, “Who the fuck do you think you are? What are you doing talking to her? Are you trying to get someone to complain about us?'" Wilson recalls. "They called me a “community activist.' I just laughed."

When his shift ended that evening, Wilson told his supervisor, Sgt. Albert Christensen, about his encounter with the woman, Palacio, and Mustacci. But Christensen seemed less than sympathetic: "[Christensen] accused me of trying to get some [sex] on duty," asserts Wilson. "He asked me if that was “my honey, my squeeze, my girlfriend.' I was like, “No, no, man. I didn't do anything wrong.'"

While he was trying to explain himself, Wilson remembers, Palacio and Mustacci came into Christensen's office and called him a racist for soliciting complaints against them. That was enough for Wilson. He told Christensen he wanted to file a complaint against the two. The sergeant talked him out of it, saying, according to Wilson, that Palacio and Mustacci were "checking on his well-being" when they drove up while he was talking to the black woman, and by inference, that they were trying to remind him of his need to show solidarity with the Miami-Dade Police Department.

But from that day on, Wilson contends, he became known as the thing cops have little patience for: an inside whistleblower. His punishment, he says, was a departmental witch-hunt with a definite "piling on" quality. Less than a week following his confrontation with Mustacci and Palacio, Wilson says his reports began disappearing, so that his paperwork became a nightmare, and then his supervisors began riding him about it. Next, officers refused to answer his back-up calls, and when he complained, he was verbally harassed. When he filed a complaint with Christensen on November 15, 1999, and again on December 5, 1999, the insults turned racial. Wilson, commended sixteen times for performing well during his twelve years on the job, next went to Christensen's supervisor, Lt. Robert Brown. He told Brown that Christensen was ignoring his situation (nothing had happened three weeks after his latest complaint), and that he thought it would be best if he were transferred to another squad. He tried to explain that the harassment he'd endured and his fear that other officers weren't backing him up could put his life in danger. But, according to Wilson, Brown turned him down, saying, "You need to resolve problems on your current squad." Twice more, Wilson requested to be switched. Twice, he was denied.

On January 6, 2000, Wilson was patrolling when he received an urgent call. A man thought to have shot and robbed two people a few days before had struck again and was running down a street not far from his location. Switching on his emergency lights, Wilson took off. A half-hour later he spotted the suspect at SW 113th Avenue and 224th Street, a Goulds neighborhood.

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