Travail to the Chief

Raul Martinez is a product of Miami's dysfunctional police department, so how can he be expected to transform it?

Attorney Barbara Heyer, who represented Brown's family, simply laughs when asked about the report. The evidence she gathered in researching the incident was so overwhelmingly negative that Miami's city attorney wrote in a 1999 memo that the city should settle the case because it would certainly lose in court. As a result Miami taxpayers shelled out $2.5 million in damages.

In 1998 Martinez retired from the police force after 24 years to become a bureaucrat. His chief, Donald Warshaw, had been hired as city manager, and he in turn hired Martinez as an assistant city manager. It was a brief stint. In the uproar following Elian Gonzalez's April 2000 seizure by federal agents, police Chief William O'Brien resigned, Warshaw replaced him with Martinez, Warshaw himself was fired, and Carlos Gimenez was hired as the new city manager.

Steve Satterwhite
Former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms says the CALEA decertification was a "disaster" for the department, but only one of many
Steve Satterwhite
Former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms says the CALEA decertification was a "disaster" for the department, but only one of many

While it is true, as Gimenez says, that Martinez inherited the police department's many problems, it soon became apparent the new chief was not moving expeditiously to correct them. One example was the department's North District substation, which covers the Model City, Little Haiti, and Upper Eastside neighborhoods. For years rumors circulated within the department that North District cops were partnering with drug dealers. The rumors were credible. Since 1995 three North District officers have been caught stealing drugs, drug money, or transporting drugs. Three more were recorded in wiretaps talking with known drug dealers. And last year a federal inmate detailed for New Times ("Under Suspicion," March 1, 2001) his involvement with a half-dozen North District cops in stealing money from drug dealers. (Internal-affairs investigators had never interviewed the inmate.) Despite such compelling evidence of criminal activity, Martinez, like his predecessors, did nothing. No reassignments, no promises to clean house. He simply said the problems were isolated and caused by "a few bad apples."

Martinez handed his critics more ammunition in May 2001 when he appointed Maj. Frank Christmas, who had been homicide commander, to perhaps the most sensitive position in the department: head of the internal-affairs division. A month after Christmas assumed his new post, the public-corruption unit of the State Attorney's Office began investigating him.

As reported in New Times ("Taking Heat," June 14, 2001), three homicide detectives -- a sergeant and two lieutenants -- claimed that Christmas obstructed justice by ordering a murder investigation to be dropped, allegedly because Christmas wanted to protect a witness who was a family friend. After the trio took their complaint to Chief Martinez, Christmas transferred them out of homicide. (Two of them ended up on the midnight shift.) Christmas denied he moved them to thwart their investigation, and Martinez concedes he met with the officers but denies they mentioned anything about Christmas's alleged obstruction of justice.

In the end the State Attorney's Office did not bring charges against Christmas, but the prosecutor who closed the investigation felt strongly enough about the case to write: "It is disturbing to consider what sort of a chilling effect this will have on any other officers who may want to come forward with any evidence of wrongdoing, either perceived or actual, in the future."

Pressure on the 52-year-old chief hasn't let up. Only a month ago the Miami City Commission convened a special session devoted to an examination of the police department. Martinez was liberally criticized for his agency's fall from grace. "Trust has been lost by the police department in our community," intoned Commissioner Joe Sanchez, a former Florida Highway Patrol officer. Commissioners Angel Gonzalez and Tomas Regalado echoed that sentiment. Even Manager Carlos Gimenez took a shot. Morale within the department was low, he scolded, and "probably will get worse before it gets better."

Martinez tried to defend his department by pointing out that crime rates are down. But he ended up conceding the commissioners' point. "You're right," he said. "Without citizen support we can't go forward."

Then he added, "That's why we asked the Justice Department: 'What have we done wrong? Go through A-to-Z and tell us what to do, and we'll implement it." That was a reference to Martinez's well-publicized invitation to the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a complete review of his agency's policies and procedures. (The feds accepted.)

This has been the chief's modus operandi since the U.S. Attorney's Office indicted thirteen of his officers late last year: tactical retreat. He dropped his opposition to the Civilian Investigative Panel after the public clamor for its passage grew intense. He's created panels of civilians and cops to review all police shootings since 1990. He says he welcomes Mayor Manny Diaz's suggestion that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate all future shootings. And now he wants the federal government to tell him how to fix his department. Implicit in all this is an unspoken admission that the chief believes he cannot implement significant reforms on his own.

A month after the commission's special session, City Manager Gimenez announced that he would resign in January 2003. Mayor Diaz, who urged Gimenez to step down, said he wanted to look beyond Miami for a replacement, that an outsider's perspective would be good for the city.

Might that approach apply to the police department as well? The mayor said he would "reserve comment" on that point.

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