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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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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.
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.
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."
By curious coincidence, Miami Beach emergency operators received a call April 14 at 2:30 a.m. reporting a suspicious person in an apartment building -- Berry's very own building at 4100 Collins Ave. Even more coincidental, the suspicious person was reported to be outside apartment 509, only two doors down the hallway from Berry's #505. Records show the caller told 911 he'd been threatened recently and he feared the person or persons who had just tried his door handle might be the same suspects.
According to the police department's dispatch log, four squad cars descended on 4100 Collins. However, none of the responding officers -- José Careaga, Martin Dionne, Anthony L. Callan, and Newell G. Wilder -- filed an incident report explaining what transpired at the apartment building. (Miami Beach Police Department procedures don't require incident reports every time units are dispatched.) Efforts by New Times to contact the occupant of apartment 509 were unsuccessful. It's apparent, nevertheless, that several officers were sent to Berry's apartment building, and likely to his floor, about the time he says two cops threatened his life.
Berry points out another coincidence: The alarming late-night encounter took place just one day before he was scheduled to be deposed as part of the lawsuit he and Taisha Auguste had filed. Berry did attend his deposition, but he has been on the run ever since. He didn't return to his job at DCF except to resign April 29, and he has avoided Miami Beach altogether. "I want to live to tell my story, go to trial, and get my justice," he says. "I don't feel I should be terrorized in my home because I want due process."
Miami Beach officials -- from the police department, manager's office, and legal department -- will not comment owing to the pending litigation. But Robert Switkes, the private attorney hired by the city to represent the three officers, categorically denies Berry's allegations. Officers Moraga, Payne, and Rojo never called Berry a "nigger" or any other slur, he asserts, adding that the officers had probable cause to arrest Berry and Auguste in 2001. Says Switkes: "This is a case of someone who was caught in a criminal act, somehow beat the system, and is now falling back on the race card as a means to improve his financial status."
Speaking from an undisclosed location outside Miami-Dade County, Berry scoffs at Switkes's charge he is using the "race card" for financial gain. "Man, I was cruising, waiting for my day in court like everyone else who goes through the system," he says. "I had a new job. I was back on the Beach. Why would I give that up to lie about cops barging into my apartment, threatening to kill me, and forcing me to run for my life? Who would put themselves through that shit? That's what a crazy person does -- and I know I'm not crazy."