Opa-locka Boots the Boss

Ousted police chief leaves complaints in his wake.

On December 12, three days after her brother caught a stray bullet during a drug turf war in one of Opa-locka's notorious HUD apartment complexes, Natasha Irving unleashed her wrath at city commission meeting. She took police Chief James Wright to task for the sorrowful state of the long-problematic apartments.

"Those boys back there don't respect the City of Opa-locka Police officers, because they're not respectable," bellowed Irving, whose brother was one of 14 homicide victims in the city last year. "Don't send two people into a war."

Commissioner Dorothy Johnson commiserated. "We've got to be more responsive," she said. "If we can't get it right, someone's got to go." Commissioner Timothy Holmes revealed two new police officers were supposed to appear at the meeting to be sworn in, but hadn't shown. The cops, fresh out of the academy, had told Holmes they had been bamboozled out of high salaries and a signing bonus.

Former Opa-locka Police Chief James Wright, when he had a job.
Jacqueline Carini
Former Opa-locka Police Chief James Wright, when he had a job.

"I'm pissed off," shouted Holmes, who then recommended that cops carry AK-47s and suggested that he and Irving go outside, where he would tell her, in plain language, what he thought of Wright. "Someone's got to go," he added in closing.

Someone went. Wright, who under a lucrative contract was hired two years ago to help turn around a town mired in crime and sinking fast, was fired last week by City Manager Jannie Beverly. In his wake he leaves a shrunken and demoralized Opa-locka Police force and a town whose woes are compounded by a series of complaints that surfaced near the end of Wright's tenure.

The police department in this 4.2-square-mile town has been steadily deteriorating for 20 years, shrinking from nearly 50 cops to a strained force of 16 patrol officers. Internal city memos and personnel complaints obtained by New Times reveal an agency rife with controversy.

It began this past November with a complaint. By the end of 2007, five employees had accused Wright of vindictive, bizarre, and lascivious behavior, including repeated sexual advances that, when spurned, resulted in "pressure," "retaliation," and "intimidation." Wright had trouble retaining new hires. Records show the abysmal staffing levels have resulted in as few as two officers patrolling all of Opa-locka during certain soul-sucking 12-hour shifts.

In January 2005, after a pair of damning Florida Department of Law Enforcement evaluations rocked Opa-locka, the Miami-Dade Police Department prepared a memo for county Commissioner Barbara Jordan detailing how much it would cost to take over the city's policing. The figure came to $7 million, more than twice the $3.2 million the city allocated to employ its crew of 39 officers.

The town needed a law enforcement miracle. Instead it got James Wright. He was brought in under a controversial four-year contract the following month. His salary was just under $100,000 a year. He was given a BlackBerry, insurance benefits, and a take-home luxury Ford Expedition.

Wright had worked for the county for 20 years and accumulated a personnel file thick with commendations. Many of his superiors loved him: He policed intelligently and aggressively, running down car thieves and armed robbers. He rose through the ranks, holding positions in practically every division of the force.

But several incidents suggest that Wright did not handle his subordinates as well as he dealt with his bosses. The word "autocratic" appears in one performance review. Another noted that "some employees react well to Sergeant Wright's [style], while others have reported that they felt demeaned by the tone or language of his comments."

One of two sexual harassment charges filed against him was found to have merit. In 1993, Wright told a female officer he would "jack her up" for failing to sign out a patrol vehicle. The next month, he was informally counseled by his district commander for addressing the same officer as "honey," "darling," and "babe," even though she'd asked him to stop.

In 1995, he caught heat for addressing a cop as "punk nigger." But that didn't prevent him from addressing his officers as "lynch, fat boy, fat-ass, hippo, and clowns," according to findings of the Miami-Dade Police Department's Professional Compliance Bureau seven years later.

In 2004, Wright took a yearlong leave of absence to run, unsuccessfully, for Jordan's commission seat. The next year, he arrived in Opa-locka as the anointed boss.

Wright swept out the department. A few veterans of the force filed lawsuits or sent angry letters to the city manager. Others retired early.

The station old-timers weren't the only ones with complaints. In April 2005, Wright's wife Margo, then a lieutenant with the Miami-Dade PD, filed for divorce, accusing him of carrying on a number of "intimate and/or sexual relationships" with female cops and police employees, two of whom worked for the City of Opa-locka.

The allegation is echoed in several sexual harassment complaints filed with the city's human resources department in the last two months of 2007, which precipitated Wright's termination. In a written response to questions from New Times, Wright denies the claims, in addition to the one by his ex-wife.

On December 17, executive secretary Natalie Buissereth asserted Wright inappropriately diverted her from important assignments by way of luxurious lunch dates and other appointments, including helping him pick out paint colors at Home Depot.

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