By Chuck Strouse
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Titus Berry, a 34-year-old former math and physics teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School, is so fearful of that city's police department he fled town two weeks ago and has gone into hiding. He took this extraordinary step on the advice of his attorney.
Before leaving, however, Berry related a harrowing tale of racially charged police brutality that reads like a script for The Shield, the cable television drama about corrupt and abusive cops. "I know it sounds unbelievable," Berry says, "but I've never feared for my life until now. When it's the police doing this to you, who do you call?"
His own answer to that question bears the marks of a desperate man. Twice he has contacted the FBI, he has alerted prominent local black activists Georgia Ayers and state Sen. Frederica Wilson (Berry himself is African American), and he even held a kind of news conference to announce his abrupt resignation from his most recent job. A friend videotaped Berry's rambling April 29 resignation speech before a roomful of stunned co-workers at the downtown Miami office of Florida's Department of Children and Families. He apologized for abandoning his post, but he had no choice -- his life was in danger. "I'm not going to become some dead nigger," Berry told the gathering. "I want to live and see my justice. But in case something happens to me, I want people to know my story."
Berry might be forgiven for coming across as somewhat paranoid, especially in light of the story he tells, which began nearly four years ago, Friday, August 3, 2001. According to Berry, he and a friend, Taisha Auguste, were leaving his apartment at 713 Collins Ave. in South Beach about 6:00 a.m.
Berry and Auguste were stopped in the building's ground-floor parking garage by two Miami Beach police officers, Manuel Moraga and Michael Thomas Payne, who were responding to a complaint that two people were arguing loudly. According to Berry, he and Auguste were not arguing. She had spent the night at his apartment and now was giving him a ride on his way to visit a friend at the University of Miami. Later that day he intended to stop by Beach High to work on his lesson plans for the upcoming school year.
The cops questioned Auguste before asking Berry to produce identification. When he asked the officers why they wanted to see his ID, one of them allegedly struck him violently across his face, knocking him unconscious for several seconds. "I never saw it coming," Berry says today. "It was totally unprovoked."
Berry says when he regained consciousness, he found himself face-down in a puddle and could hear the officers using racial epithets as they hit him; another officer, Sgt. Mario Rojo, who arrived after Moraga and Payne, began kicking him. "They called me a rap nigger," he recounts, noting that his beating occurred two weeks before Miami Beach hosted the first of two hip-hop music awards shows sponsored by The Source magazine. "They were telling me they were going to stick a broomstick up my ass. They were telling me they weren't going to let the rap niggers take over Miami Beach. I was trying to tell them I was a teacher."
Moraga, Payne, and Rojo allegedly grabbed, pushed, and slapped Auguste, who says the cops called her a "fucking black bitch" and "stupid whore," among other insults, because she pleaded with the officers to stop hitting Berry.
According to the cops' version, Moraga and Payne said Berry and Auguste were being uncooperative by refusing to answer questions. The police say when they queried Berry, he screamed at them and got into a "combative stance." Moraga and Payne attempted to place an unruly Berry under arrest, but he allegedly tried to twist and punch his way out of the officers' grasp. Moraga says Berry overpowered them and at one point pulled Payne's walkie-talkie from its holster during the scuffle. Moraga and Payne also assert that Auguste tried to verbally distract them when they had Berry on the ground.
Rojo, who responded to Moraga's radio call for assistance, says Berry was lying on his side, kicking at Moraga and Payne. Rojo held down Berry's legs so the other officers could handcuff him.
Once he and Auguste had been subdued, Berry says, the officers placed them in a prisoner transport van. Auguste was taken to the county women's detention center, where she spent ten hours in jail. Berry was transported to the jail ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for a large abrasion on his shoulder. He was booked into jail and remained locked up for two days.
Upon making bail, Berry returned to Jackson Memorial Hospital's emergency room to be treated for multiple contusions. In the coming weeks he would experience severe migraines and numbness in his face, left hand, and right leg. "I've had three surgeries, two on my wrist," says Berry, who now walks with a cane and wears a splint around his left forearm. According to his medical records, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and crocodile tears syndrome, which commonly occurs following facial paralysis.