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By Chuck Strouse
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This was the unenviable situation into which Pete Cuccaro walked in March 2000. Cuccaro was struck by how divided the department was, and by its almost nonexistent management structure. "When I came in, the department was paralyzed," he remembers. "It was divided, divided loyalties. The direction was determined by whoever wanted to take the initiative." Cuccaro describes the atmosphere then as "beleaguered." "I set out to instill confidence, to deal with issues, not personalities," he recalls. "I was there a month before I realized I was talking management 101 and they didn't understand."
Cuccaro, age 52, is an unimposing man of five feet eight inches, with a slightly stocky build and a broad, pleasant face. He is an intelligent, understated leader who consistently deflects all praise, preferring to credit his officers with most of the improvements the department has made in the past couple of years. "The talent was always there," he says. "They are very anxious to be professional and earn the respect they deserve." Even union agitators like him. Joe Puleo, a feisty negotiator for the statewide Fraternal Order of Police, has nothing but good things to say about the new chief. "It's been like night and day," the former New York cop comments. "Before you got Cuccaro in there, the place was being run by a bunch of knuckleheads. They were terrible."
Capt. John Hunkiar, head of the department's investigative unit, agrees with Cuccaro that the officers and the school system were eager for a new order. "There had to be change," Hunkiar concedes. "I think definitely the school system wanted to see a change." Last year Cuccaro appointed the young captain head of a new, centralized unit of 30 investigators housed in a stripped-out old school building in Miami's Brownsville neighborhood. In the past year, this group of detectives has developed a level of professionalism that has begun to be recognized by other police agencies, state prosecutors, and internal school district officials.
The detectives now run all investigations involving employees by public-corruption prosecutors before deciding whether the matter will be pursued criminally or civilly. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle praises Cuccaro for developing new procedures and a better relationship with her office. "Today we have fewer concerns about the potential of the school board police department failing to respond appropriately to a criminal matter involving a school employee," she notes. "If the changes continue to move in the direction they are moving now, there is no question that the end result will be a better department."
Another of Cuccaro's assets are his long-standing relationships with other local police agencies, and he has pushed the school police to develop mutually beneficial relationships with them. North Miami Beach Police Chief William Berger says he's pleased with the new training school police are getting and the initiative they are showing in coordinating the law-enforcement community to handle a Columbine-like incident if it ever happens here. He asserts that, in the past, the leadership of the school police seemed intent on keeping other police agencies at arm's length. "I see much more happening than ever before," Berger remarks. "Pete's well-respected. He's somebody I could get on the phone and talk with if there was a problem."
School police now have a much better handle on proper procedures for both police reports and investigations, thanks to training programs Cuccaro has implemented. "When it comes to a crime, nobody tells us how to proceed," declares Hunkiar. "In the past it was perceived that OPS would often dictate which route a case would go. There were often times when a region captain would not be informed of a parent's complaint until the parent, frustrated by the administrative process, would call us." Capt. Arnie Weatherington and Lt. Gerald Kitchell recently became the first in the department to graduate from the prestigious Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville.
Cuccaro also asked other police agencies to review old internal-affairs cases the school police had closed to determine why some of them were not handled properly. "Most of the time it came down to training," Cuccaro says. Some of the longer-serving officers were hired back when a much smaller school police force only investigated burglaries at schools and helped OPS with employee investigations. They didn't even fill out uniform crime reports, instead calling another local police agency for that. Now they work all cases, except sexual battery and homicides. "It's amazing the difference it makes when you have someone who knows what they are doing and turns on the lights," confides Officer Hurley.
Cuccaro has additionally looked to make a physical statement that the school police department is a professional agency with a new attitude. New uniforms (blue instead of brown) and a new design logo for the blue-and-white car colors make that statement, as does his appointment of Carlos Fernandez as the department's first public information officer. Not that it hasn't been an uphill battle at times to convince some of the cops and long-time bureaucrats in the system that changes are for the best. "There are still glitches," Hunkiar admits. "People are used to things the way they were." Cuccaro says half his job is educating administration. Whether OPS bureaucrats are pleased with the new arrangement isn't clear. OPS assistant superintendent Joyce Annunziata declined to comment on the subject or on anything having to do with the school police. "I was told we don't have a comment," a subordinate in her department offered apologetically.