By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Donald "Pete" Cuccaro was a skinny little Italian kid from Connecticut when he moved to Dade County in the early Sixties at the age of fourteen. He was just in time to experience the wave of Cuban immigrant children who flooded into the public schools in the first few years after Castro's revolution. The Palmetto High graduate grew up wanting to be a policeman, and that's just what he did, joining the Dade police force in 1971 as a beat cop.
Cuccaro spent 27 years as a county police officer. For years he was a media spokesman. In the summer of 1984, when executive producer Michael Mann sought to make the word vice synonymous with the Magic City, Cuccaro served as a technical advisor on the popular NBC show. Well, at least for the first couple of episodes. Then he resigned, protesting a script that depicted homicide detectives beating up suspects. "They promised me they wanted to portray the department realistically," he told the Miami Heraldin 1984. "They didn't, and I can't ethically continue." A couple of months later, Cuccaro was reassigned to Metro-Dade's South District police station. He later headed the gang-activities unit and robbery-investigations bureau.
When long-time Metro-Dade director Fred Taylor retired in 1997, Cuccaro served as acting police chief until retiring in February 1998, and Carlos Alvarez became the current director. "He's a planner and a doer," Taylor deems Cuccaro. "The job of the police chief is to be able to merge doing the operation -- getting it done right -- and then having a little vision about how it can be done better and how to get there. Now I think that's what Pete is doing, developing a vision. I don't think [the school police] had [one] before."
Taylor is almost right. The problem with the school police was not a lack of vision but a vision different from that of a professional police force. Although a tiny, rudimentary version of the department was established by the school district in 1957, it was more of a security department, which simply coordinated the schools with local law-enforcement agencies and conducted background checks on employee applicants. In 1970 the school district's security-services department got a little bigger and began doing more personnel investigations and patrolling school properties at night to prevent burglaries.
A few years later, officers were occasionally patrolling a few schools during the day to reduce crime. In the Eighties the department, which had roughly 40 to 50 officers, called itself the Special Investigative Unit and gradually began to take on more traditional police duties. In the Nineties the unit was calling itself a police department and stationing an officer in every high school (and later in most middle schools). Today the school police has about 180 officers.
What didn't happen as the department grew both in size and responsibility was a corresponding evolution of leadership. "They didn't groom officers for leadership positions," asserts Sgt. Bruce Beard, a seventeen-year veteran of the school police. "People were selected based on the good ol' boy network and favoritism." Another problem was that the school police were still viewed by school district administrators -- nonpolice-mentality bureaucrats who oversaw them -- as merely the glorified security guards they'd once been.
This wasn't far from the truth in some cases. The school district would often hire uncertified officers because they were less expensive. For instance a rookie officer hired by the school system in the last couple of years would be paid about $26,000, nearly $10,000 less than other comparable police agencies pay. They would put him through cop school to get his certification, and that was about the end of formal training most would receive. Before New Times exposed this glaring error in 1997, the department also hired officers without requiring psychological screening; some had even failed psych tests at other departments. The officers could expect that the gaps between their incomes and those of cops at other agencies would only grow the longer they stayed -- hardly a recipe for building a great police force. So why do they stay? "You get to help real special kids," Hurley says. "That is flat out the reason I do this."
There was another reason the school police was so bad for so long: the bureaucrats. The superintendents, region administrators, and principals liked being able to largely direct the activities and investigations of the police, a bad tradition since 1957. Unlike other police departments, which typically report directly to the city manager or a mayor, the school police was separated by layers of paper-pushers answering to then-superintendent Roger Cuevas. And the department often got moved from one administrative division to another and was subject to the whims of whoever was in charge at the time. After Cuccaro was hired, Cuevas gave him a direct reporting line to the superintendent. "That was a large step in allowing us to professionalize the department," Cuccaro says.
Until then, when it came to employees accused of wrongdoing, the bureaucrats, not the police, would decide whether the matter would be pursued civilly or criminally. And time after time those decisions seemed driven by the friendships and political connections of the people involved, rather than the facts. By the mid-Nineties the State Attorney's Office and other police agencies were publicly expressing concerns that the disposition of potential crimes involving children were inappropriately being decided by paper-pushers rather than law-enforcement officials.