Serpico Negro

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

Sanchez radioed other officers that he had lost Wilson's car. Ofcr. David Lillard heard the alert and found Wilson minutes later. In his deposition, Lillard admitted that Wilson hadn't committed a traffic violation, but pulled him over anyway.

"He came over to the car," Wilson recalls. "And I was like, “You know who I am, right? I'm Ralph Wilson. I work with you.' He said he knew who I was. [Lillard] asked me: “Why are you giving us a hard time?'"

By that time, Sanchez had arrived, along with Ofcr. Calvetta Phillips. According to conflicting depositions, none of the officers asked for Wilson's driver license or ran his car's Miami-Dade police tag. Lillard testified that he told Sanchez, "It isn't worth it," meaning that they should let Wilson go without citation. The officers agreed and Wilson drove away. Before Phillips left she told Lillard and Sanchez that she thought Wilson no longer worked for the department. Suspecting Wilson had misrepresented himself as a cop, Lillard and Sanchez went after Wilson again.

When he saw the police cars coming, Wilson remembers feeling shocked and scared: "There were two police cars behind me, and I could hear sirens in the distance. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Officer Phillips deposed that she arrived on the scene in time to see Sgt. Alex Ocariz searching Wilson's car. Sitting handcuffed in a nearby cruiser, Wilson watched Ocariz retrieve a gun from under his driver's side seat. "He said, “Look what we have here!'"Wilson recounts. "My gun and holster were in my trunk. He must have taken it out."

Because Wilson's gun wasn't holstered or reasonably secured, he could be charged with carrying a concealed firearm. He was arrested and placed in a holding cell at the Cutler Ridge station for seven hours. An officer not involved in his arrest took him to the Miami-Dade County Jail at 1:00 p.m. Formally charged with fleeing and eluding a police officer and reckless driving -- misdemeanors -- Wilson, whose wife posted his $1500 bail that night, returned to work the next day.

Two months passed before Wilson and his attorney appeared in Miami-Dade County court to deal with the misdemeanor charges, only to discover that the State Attorney's Office also wanted to charge the cop with a "concealed-weapon" felony. Police charged with a felony are immediately dismissed from the force without pay, and this was Wilson's fate on November 30, 1999. Meanwhile he attempted to file complaints with Internal Affairs against Sergeant Ocariz for planting the gun but was told that he must have an attorney present.

"That not only goes against their standard operating procedures," attorney Michael Feiler says. "But it's absurd. They are supposed to take complaints from anyone at anytime."

Wilson was notified that he was fired June 14, 2000. Because he hadn't yet been to court on the felony charges (his case was postponed nine times until October 2000), he questioned why he had been fired. Wilson says he met with Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, who informed the fired cop he was unaware that Wilson had filed a litany of internal affairs complaints against officers over the past two years.

"He told me he would investigate," says Wilson. Two days later he received a letter confirming his termination.

The first good news Wilson had heard in months came when, after nine postponements, he finally went to trial in October. The State Attorney's Office dropped all charges against him for what Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub admits were "too many inconsistencies by different officers of what happened that night."

Attorney Lurvey says he won the case largely because of Ofcr. Calvetta Phillips's deposition. She testified that she saw the gun in a holder with the snaps in place beneath the driver's side seat. Yet the holster wasn't listed in a property receipt like all other items taken from the car.

"It was our position that the gun was planted in the driver's side," says Lurvey.

Also Phillips said Wilson behaved "calmly" when he was pulled over, not "erratically" and "temperamentally" as Lillard and Sanchez maintained in their depositions. Sgt. Pete Vasquez called Wilson a "respectful," "knowledgeable," and "down-to-earth regular guy."

For all that, however, Wilson is off the force and without his benefits and pension, trying to support his three children on a meager six-dollar-per-hour salary. (He's working at a home for the disabled and is separated from his wife.) He wants his career back and his tormentors punished, and to that end is pursuing a civil case against the Miami-Dade Police Department, not scheduled until next spring.

Wilson's attorneys, Michael Feiler and Martin Leach, say there is a good chance the department will settle, but even if he is reinstated with back pay, Wilson will need to be transferred. Sgt. Albert Christensen, his chief antagonist and a 31-year Miami-Dade police veteran, was demoted to an officer rank for using "improper procedures" last April, but it's unclear if the demotion was directly related to Wilson's problems with the South-Miami Dade squad.

"When you talk about matters of discrimination within a police department, it's disappointingly common," says Feiler. "What it comes down to is police culture that's resistant to change."

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