To Serve and Protect and Intimidate

A school teacher is beaten senseless by Miami Beach police, then his life is allegedly threatened, now he's gone

December 11, 2001, a judge dismissed the case against Taisha Auguste, who had been charged with one felony count of obstructing a police officer. Berry had been charged with four counts of battery on a police officer, four counts of resisting arrest with violence, and one count of depriving a police officer of his radio -- all felonies. Only three weeks after the incident, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped six of those felonies. July 29, 2002, prosecutors dropped the remaining charges. While the threat of a criminal trial had vanished, the emotional and physical injuries made it difficult for Berry to move on with his life.

After earning a B.S. in physics and a master's degree in education from Tennessee State University, the Chicago-born Berry moved to Miami Beach in 1997. The following year he was hired by Miami-Dade County Public Schools to teach at Miami Beach Senior High.

According to his personnel file, Berry was commended for his teaching methods. He also participated in 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a program created by state Sen. Frederica Wilson that connects at-risk African-American boys with adult mentors. He was a young man with drive and ambition. "My goal was to become an assistant principal," he recalls.

October 2001: Titus Berry's injuries were apparent two 
months after his 
encounter with cops
October 2001: Titus Berry's injuries were apparent two months after his encounter with cops

Following his violent encounter with police, however, he was so scared to be in Miami Beach he sought a transfer to another high school. "My requesting to be transferred is in no way connected to any hardships with your school," Berry stated in a handwritten note to principal Jeanne Friedman on August 13, 2001. "In fact I love Beach High and it deeply hurts me to leave! My requesting to leave has to do with a horrific experience I had with the Miami Beach police. To make a long story short, I fear for my life and safety when I am on the Beach." But with the school year already under way, a transfer was not possible.

Berry later dropped out of the 5000 Role Models program because he was afraid to stay after school, says a former colleague who still teaches at Beach High. "He used to be an energetic, easygoing guy," says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, "but after his arrest, he was withdrawn and angry. I hardly saw him around."

Chris Stevenson was Berry's union steward at Beach High. For several months following the violent arrest, Stevenson would drive from his Cutler Ridge home to Miami Gardens, where Berry was staying with a friend, and take him to school. "He was paranoid of the Beach police," says Stevenson, who now teaches at Coral Reef Senior High School. "If he saw an officer come on campus, he would go the other way. When he would tell you what they did to him, you could see the fear rise in him."

Berry's personnel file describes a downward spiral that ended badly. In addition to missing fourteen teaching days that school year, his performance began to decline. His former attention to detail slipped. Grades were not properly recorded, job evaluations were ignored, his grade book was stolen or misplaced and he was slow to reconstruct it. Finally, in June 2002, he was fired. The official reason: He had failed to renew his state-mandated teaching certificate.

Depressed and broke, Berry drifted into homelessness. For a year and half he lived in shelters, in abandoned buildings, and under bridges. "I was one of those people you see pushing all their belongings in a buggy," he says. In early 2003, while staying at Beckham Hall, a homeless shelter in Allapattah, Berry applied for a counselor position with the state Department of Children and Families. He got the job, left the shelter, and moved in with a friend who lived in Surfside. Life was beginning to look up.

By December 2003 he'd recovered enough to take stock of his situation and the trauma he'd endured. He and Auguste decided to sue the City of Miami Beach, its police department, and Ofcrs. Moraga, Payne, and Rojo. Berry and Auguste, who is now 25 years old, allege their civil rights were violated when police used excessive force to falsely arrest them. The case is pending in federal court. (Auguste's attorney says she remains too distressed to comment.)

Eight months ago Berry moved back to Miami Beach. "I wanted to be near the water and the beach," he explains. "I wasn't about to let a few bad seeds in the police department keep me away anymore." He and a roommate rented an apartment at 4100 Collins Ave. But his positive outlook on life was devastated six weeks ago. According to Berry, April 14, about 2:30 a.m., two Miami Beach police officers threatened to kill him. They had pounded on his apartment door, demanding entrance. "They said, 'Police, open up!' And then I asked if they had a warrant. The cop said, 'Yeah, motherfucker! Now open up before I break it down!'"

Berry says he opened the door and two officers rushed in. One quickly pinned him against the wall with a forearm to his throat while the other searched the apartment. "These guys came into my home like Nazis," Berry recalls. "The one holding me up against the wall called me a nigger, spat in my face, told me he knew where I worked, what my routine was, and if I don't go back to Chicago where I belong, they were going to kill me."

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