By Michael E. Miller
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Investigative journalist Mike Kirsch remembers undercover cops pinning him against his car in Cicero, Illinois, in the late Eighties, when he was working for a CBS affiliate. He says the officers were miffed that he was investigating a tip that they'd accepted favors from some neighborhood hookers.
In 1996, while he was on assignment in Bosnia, ten Serb policemen shoved and kicked Kirsch after they found him filming the charred remains of a house in a Muslim village. They knocked him to the ground, spat on him, trained their guns on him, and confiscated his videotape, according to a human rights report on the incident.
Despite those frightening encounters, Kirsch never lost his bulldog tenacity when it came to exposing law enforcement misconduct. But ever since an unflattering report about local police departments aired last year, South Florida cops have made life miserable for the 44-year-old Southern California native. The situation culminated with the reporter's arrest on two felony charges this past February 14 and his departure from local CBS affiliate WFOR-TV. "It has been a very difficult situation for me and my family," Kirsch says. "But I am not backing down."
His melodrama began during February sweeps in 2006. Working alongside the Police Complaint Center, an independent watchdog organization, Kirsch reported on what happens to a civilian who goes to the police station to file a complaint against an officer. Departments around the country give citizens complaint forms all the time, no questions asked, but Kirsch's investigation revealed that 35 law enforcement agencies in South Florida, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff's Office, did not.
Kirsch equipped Greg Slate, an undercover investigator from the center, with a hidden camera and accompanied him into one police station after another. In the segment, Kirsch and Slate are met with indifference, and at times hostility, in Coral Gables, Hialeah Gardens, Miami Beach, Miami Springs, South Miami, and Sunny Isles Beach. They are denied complaint forms at every stop. At a Miami-Dade Police district station, a sergeant taunts Slate. "What is it?" the policeman barks. "Did [a cop] steal your money? Did he have sex with your wife?"
The reporter presented the incriminating footage to several law enforcement honchos, including Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker and Miami Police Chief John Timoney, whose department was one of only three that handed out complaint forms. Timoney said any police chief who didn't make the form available should be fired. Parker, who declined to comment for this story, disagreed with his counterpart and was clearly annoyed.
At a March 15, 2006 Miami-Dade County Commission committee meeting, Kirsch had another run-in with Parker about complaint forms. According to a Webcast of the public hearing, Parker told elected officials that Kirsch's report was "the farthest thing from the truth."
"As I explained to Mr. Kirsch ... the fact is that we do have a complaint form," Parker said. "The reporter was given the form."
Kirsch accused Parker of lying to the commissioners. The newshound also notified the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, alleging Parker's false statement. But an FDLE spokesman, citing state law, said the agency cannot investigate Parker unless it receives a request from the police department, the county mayor, county commissioners, or the governor. Miami-Dade Police spokeswoman Cmdr. Linda O'Brien denied Kirsch's allegation in a recent interview with New Times.
"The director does not lie to the commission in any shape or form," she said.
Shortly after Kirsch's report aired, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association put out a mock BOLO -- "be on the lookout" -- for Kirsch via the union's Website. It warned officers: "Channel 4 News is ... setting up officers and instigating confrontations, then filing complaints with the various agencies." It posted Kirsch's date of birth, home address, and driver's license number. Broward PBA president Dick Brickman accused the reporter of creating a news story where none existed.
That was Kirsch's last skirmish with the law until a routine traffic stop went awry this past Valentine's Day morning. He and his wife were driving their three-year-old daughter to school, a few blocks from their residence in Doral. According to Miami-Dade Police Ofcr. Patricia Perez, she observed Kirsch driving illegally in the left turning lane at NW 114th Avenue and 42nd Street. Perez claims Kirsch ignored her command to park next to two other motorists she had pulled over.
"She approached me in a loud, aggressive manner, pointing and yelling at me to hand over my driver's license and registration," Kirsch says, adding that when he got out to give his driver's license to Perez, she shouted at him to "get back in your fucking car, asshole!"
When he turned around, Kirsch says, Perez lunged at him from behind, kneed him in the back of his right leg, and stomped on his right foot. "She grabbed my right arm and ordered me to put my hands on the back of my vehicle," he says. "She began very aggressively kicking my feet apart into a spread-eagle position, cursing under her breath: Fucking asshole.'"
She radioed for assistance and cuffed Kirsch. Within five minutes, ten officers were on the scene, he claims, some of whom laughed and jeered at him while he was in the back of the squad car for three hours at the arrest location. According to Perez's report, Kirsch began yelling, "Is this why you became a cop? You're wasting my fucking time." She said he "pushed his chest out towards my face and clenched his fists."
Kirsch maintains the officer lied, including when she asserted that she drew her Taser to keep him at bay. "That is false," he says. "She never pulled it out."
Perez charged Kirsch with a felony count of resisting arrest with violence and two misdemeanors -- assault on a police officer and disorderly conduct. Police spokeswoman O'Brien declined to comment about the arrest. "This case is still under investigation," she explained.
Word of his bust traveled fast. A week later a CBS 4 colleague informed Kirsch that, while at the BSO media relations office, he had seen a life-size poster of Kirsch's mug shot with the word capturedstamped on it.
Kirsch submitted a public records request to BSO spokesman Elliott Cohen to obtain a copy of the allegedly doctored photo and the identity of any BSO employee involved in its production. According to Cohen's e-mailed response this past February 23: "The referenced document was not prepared on BSO equipment, no longer exists, and is not subject to Florida records laws." Cohen declined to comment further.
Since then, Kirsch has been fighting to clear his name. Miami-based criminal defense lawyer Michael Tein, whose partner is former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, agreed to represent the reporter pro bono. Tein obtained Perez's personnel file, which contains some unfavorable information about the officer. In 2006 she was reprimanded for calling a prisoner "a piece of shit" and "loser." In addition, Perez, while working in the warrants division from 2004 to 2005, was repeatedly warned and counseled about her poor attitude and failure to get along with fellow officers. Her superiors suggested she seek work elsewhere in the department. She landed patrol duty in Doral.
A private investigator hired by Tein interviewed one of the other motorists who received a traffic ticket from Perez the day she arrested Kirsch. In a sworn affidavit, the driver described Perez as "rude and condescending."
At Kirsch's arraignment this past March 26, state prosecutors dropped the two misdemeanors against him. They also reduced the felony to a misdemeanor of resisting arrest without violence. "In view of the evidence, we felt a misdemeanor, not a felony, was the appropriate charge," said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, who chose not to elaborate.
But the damage was done. Days before his court hearing, CBS 4 dropped Kirsch. The station barred him from its Doral headquarters, pulled his bio off the Website, and refused to renew his contract. CBS 4 officials declined to comment.
This past May 31, South Florida Society of Professional Journalists president Darcie Lunsford sent Director Parker a letter requesting that Miami-Dade Police open an internal affairs investigation into Kirsch's arrest. She is still waiting for a reply.
"I truly think [the police] thought I would cower, buckle, and that the story would be buried forever," Kirsch says. "But I have been through worse."