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.

"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.

"He explained that many women that worked with him later became sergeants, lieutenants, or were transferred to other specialized units," Buissereth wrote.

Three days later, officer Nikeya Hill alleged Chief Wright "had utilized his position and power to intimidate me into a sexual relationship in order for me to maintain my employment here in Opa-locka." She added, "This harassment got to an all-time high when I formally announced my pregnancy."

Wright's crime analyst, Tamika Miller, wrote four complaints between November 30 and Christmas Eve, detailing a bizarre series of unwanted advancements and punishments visited upon her by Wright. She alleged he made inappropriate comments about her underwear and, on another occasion, whispered in her ear that "I look good and for me to call him later because he has something to tell me."

She also claimed Wright "would constantly call me into his office and ask me what I think about what he was wearing" and that the incidents had caused her to suffer a mental breakdown. Miller says her doctor required her to take time off from work and that within a month of her return, she was moved to a trailer with no telephone or air conditioning.

Wright has filed ethics complaints against Miller's mother, Opa-locka City Commissioner Gail Miller, alleging she harassed him on numerous occasions in an attempt to get preferential treatment, including pay raises for her daughter and Buissereth.

As for the trailer, Wright insists the move was part of the station's renovation and that conditions there are fine. "None of the other employees are complaining about having to work in a brand-new trailer," he writes.

In her third complaint, Miller alleged Wright retaliated against her, ordering his last remaining administrative officer, Lt. H.A. Tubbs, to issue her a variety of directives he refused to put into writing, including a demand that she not speak to other employees at the station.

Miller's complaints appear to have been corroborated by Tubbs, who filed a January 4 memo to the city manager asserting his belief he was "being 'set up' as a scapegoat for the issues raised in [Miller, Buissereth, and Hill's] complaints, giving the chief cover for actions that were directed by him." Tubbs also complained that Wright objected to allowing Hill to work a light-duty detail because of her pregnancy. "The chief remained adamant over several attempts, saying each time Officer Hill would work 12-hour shifts," Tubbs wrote.

In the meantime, the ranks continued to thin. New Times obtained at least 10 police work rosters showing that between July and December 2007, there were only two officers and a supervisor available to respond to calls citywide. Station insiders say only one detective remains to handle a backlog of more than 2,000 cases.

After City Manager Jannie Beverly removed Wright from his post January 22, she did not publicly disclose her reasons. Indeed she has remained impressively aloof when dealing with any questions, declining to return several messages from — and canceling a scheduled appointment with — New Times. ("The manager decided to do what she did," says the town's mayor, Joseph Kelly.)

At the following evening's commission meeting, no mention of Wright's dismissal appeared on the agenda. The task fell to Opa-locka resident Alvin Burke, who rose up during public comments to berate the commission for hiring Wright, who had a history of "problems" in the first place. "More money being drained from the poor city of Opa-locka," he boomed.

Holmes attempted to put a positive spin on things. "I know [we've] made a change," he said. "I just hope that with the start of this, we have more police officers out on the streets."

Nine police cadets wearing suits and ties sat in the audience. One sniffled throughout the proceedings; others looked notably uncomfortable. They will take their entrance exam at the end of January.

Tubbs, acting as interim chief, declines to say whether he wants the job permanently. Hill and Buissereth are back at work in the station, and Miller is on her way to a suitable office, Tubbs says.

Mayor Kelly says he hopes large cadet classes will send more officers into the community. Like his colleagues on the city commission, he offers little in the way of specifics when asked to describe the kind of leader who could turn around the department — and, ultimately, save the city.

Wright has vowed to fight his termination.

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