What happens when a wayward cop goes unpunished for a blatant crime? Ask Sgt. Juan E. Mendez. Last month, a citizen oversight group considered the 92nd complaint filed against the Miami Police officer in his 25-year career.
Those complaints include 22 for excessive use of force, 22 for discourtesy, 20 for abusive treatment, and seven for missing property, according to city records. He's received seven official reprimands including punishments for crashing his cruiser and accidentally firing his gun. He's also killed four suspects on the job and cost Miami taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements. "Unusual and disturbing," says Janet McAliley, a member of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), which hears complaints against cops.
Worst of all, Mendez's career could have ended more than two decades ago, when he was involved in a controversial brutality case. Back in May 1987, he was on patrol in Overtown when he spotted Alfred Lee in a parked car. It appeared he was rolling a joint. When Mendez approached, Lee protested that he was a cop. Mendez didn't believe him.
Lee hit the gas, eventually leading Miami, Hialeah, and Florida Highway Patrol officers on a wild chase. Eventually he crashed, jumped a wall near NW 27th Avenue and 62nd Street, and then was arrested. That's when things got ugly.
Mendez and other Miami officers beat Lee to a pulp, punching him in the face more than 20 times, kicking his body, and slapping him after he'd been handcuffed, according to five other cops on the scene.
Lee, who was black, was an off-duty 30-year-old Miami-Dade Police officer. Mendez and the other Miami cops who beat him were Hispanic and white. The racially charged case was hushed up and Mendez was cleared of wrongdoing even though an internal affairs panel recommended a lengthy suspension.
Twenty years later, his case file is littered with questionable incidents. He killed three suspects in cases that were all ruled justified. Then, on September 30, 1999, he pumped seven bullets at a 19-year-old carjacking suspect named Antonio Butler in Overtown, killing him instantly. Though hundreds of protesters called it "cold-blooded murder hiding behind a badge," police again cleared Mendez. That was a crummy decision. In 2006, the City of Miami paid Butler's family a $900,000 settlement.
This past June 16, the CIP heard the latest — a claim he damaged a cell phone during a February arrest outside a downtown nightclub. It was ruled inconclusive. Mendez is still on the job.