Dante's younger brother Khalid, a slim guy with short-cropped hair, leans against the family's maroon minivan. Inside the house, their older sister Alexis tends to her 13-year-old paraplegic daughter. Amid the preholiday revelry, no one notices the silver Chrysler 300 with tinted windows cruising the tree-lined block.
Suddenly, flashing lights bathe the front lawn in red and blue. More than a dozen cops in light-gray polos, dark-gray cargo pants, and black vests flood out of the Chrysler and other unmarked cars, storming through the front gate with guns drawn. Dante drops his beer. Before he can react, a beefy cop tackles him, knocking down his 1-year-old, who screams in terror.
The police, all members of an elite Miami-Dade unit called the Tactical Narcotics Team — TNT for short — arrest Dante and his friends, and haul Khalid and Alexis off to jail as well.
The Levels were just three of the 112 people in Liberty City booked that weekend as part of a TNT operation cheekily dubbed "Santa's Helper," which the Miami Herald and local TV stations ate up as a feel-good story about cops keeping the inner city safe — an especially juicy tale when coupled with video of the widow of a slain officer handing out 500 toys to poor children. The Levels' arrest led the 6 p.m. telecasts, with CBS 4 reporter Peter D'Oench hailing the MDPD for "getting kids in the neighborhood to see... the human side of the officers who love to interact with the children." A Herald story, meanwhile, offered that the "streets of northwest Miami-Dade [will be] safe for when Santa comes to town."
However, a two-month investigation by New Times has found that Santa's Helper was a colossal waste of police resources. Of the 112 suspects arrested, 73 people were charged only with misdemeanor pot possession. The vast majority of the busted pot smokers were either released within 24 hours or avoided jail by promising to show up in court. Of the 73 alleged tokers, 68 of them — including Dante Level and his siblings — had no violent criminal record. If they were guilty of anything, it was smoking a joint on their own front porch.
Police say TNT, a 31-officer team that focuses on aggressive, low-level drug busts such as Santa's Helper, is vital because their work prevents more serious drug and gang violence. Even as other units specializing in cargo and auto theft were disbanded last month to save money for the cash-strapped department, the brass left TNT and its $3 million budget untouched.
"This is a great way to capture a cross section of robbers, burglars, thieves, and dopers who shoot kids and cops and will openly spray a corner with bullets," says Maj. Charles Nanney, head of the Miami-Dade Narcotics Bureau. "Cocaine, marijuana, and heroin availability at the street level poses the greatest threat."
But neighborhood activists and some criminologists say letting an aggressive unit loose on small-time users does more to alienate black neighborhoods than it does to end violent crime. Santa's Helper, they say, is a perfect illustration of how a unit with a history of corruption — and a mound of complaints about excessive force — has lost the War on Drugs. In recent years, three officers who worked with TNT, but not assigned to the unit full-time, were busted in public corruption probes. Meanwhile, 14 current squad members have combined for 40-plus internal affairs probes.
As Florida's black communities roil in the aftermath of the police inaction over the Trayvon Martin killing, some observers say cops should rethink the philosophy behind units such as TNT. The story of the Levels, whose lives were turned upside down by the drug bust, offers a counterpoint to the boilerplate narrative that busting pot smokers in the inner city somehow makes Miami safer.
"That kind of strategy just gets everybody in the neighborhood pissed off at the police," says Roger Dunham, a University of Miami sociology professor who has studied the unit's techniques. "The last thing we need is to arrest a bunch of people on drug possession charges to simply fill up the jail."
In 1990, after the embers of the last major riot in Miami were tamped down and there were few cocaine cowboys left to chase, county police began concentrating on a new front in the War on Drugs. Inner-city neighborhoods such as Overtown and Liberty City and rural cities like Homestead and Florida City faced a new deadly epidemic: crack cocaine.
Following the lead of police in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., Miami-Dade created its own tactical narcotics unit. Its acronym, TNT, didn't come by accident. The point of the unit was to use shock-and-awe tactics to overwhelm violent criminals in the drug game. The department tapped Daniel Flynn, at the time a major assigned to the Northside District, which includes Liberty City, to put together Miami-Dade's TNT. Its mission: Eradicate street-level drug crimes in every ghetto from Homestead to Opa-locka.
The unit was manned by Flynn and seven full-time sergeants, but as many as 120 county cops were pooled into TNT service, primarily on overtime. On nights TNT conducted sweeps, as many as two dozen officers in tactical gear would jump out of unmarked cars, using the element of surprise and brute strength to nab suspects.
"By merely showing they could use overwhelming force against them, the criminals simply backed down," Dunham says. "They quickly realize resistance is futile."
Flynn mapped out a strategy like a military general planning to take on an insurgency. "We targeted the most drug-infested neighborhoods with the highest number of felony crimes," Flynn says. "We would spend three weeks doing a lot of surveillance work to find out where the sellers operated from and follow their patterns. Then we would do a two-week enforcement phase that involved reverse stings and surveillance-based takedowns."
Once the criminals had been cleared out, the county's code enforcement office demolished crackhouses and removed abandoned cars. "We'd go door-to-door meeting with the neighbors and give them our pager numbers," Flynn says. "We helped them set up neighborhood watch groups in case the criminals tried to move back in."
By most accounts, TNT worked well in the beginning. In its first year, the team arrested more than 8,000 suspects, yet it didn't have a single excessive-use-of -force complaint, according to a 1991 UM study by Dunham.
"Flynn used officers who were reasonable," Dunham says. "It was considered a privilege to get on this unit. If one officer screwed up, he or she was taken out."
Flynn made it his mission to combine aggressive sweeps with good relationships in Miami's worst neighborhoods. Keeping abusive cops off the unit made it easier for inner-city residents to accept the large waves of sweeps conducted by TNT, the former major explains.
"Before you could come work on TNT, you had to go through a carefully designed training program," Flynn says. "One of the first things I would do is roll tape of the show Cops. In one particular scene, a guy puts a handful of drugs in his mouth. The officer cocks a gun against the head of the subject to get him to spit it out. That was a scenario I would never let happen in a TNT operation."
He also had another rule: A cop could not have any excessive-use-of-force complaints in his or her personnel file to make it onto the team. "I wanted officers and supervisors who were aggressive, but not abusive," Flynn says. "There's a difference."
Flynn was promoted to captain in the narcotics bureau one year after heading TNT, but the team continued to flourish after his departure. In its first ten years, according to department stats, TNT made 16,609 arrests and seized more than 14 kilos of crack cocaine, 22 kilos of powder cocaine, 5,764 kilos of marijuana, and one kilo of heroin. They also nabbed $874,198 in cash and 1,155 weapons. More than 160 crackhouses were shut down.
Just as important, the suspects they booked were often bad characters. In that first decade, 54 percent of those arrested had a criminal history, often for murder, sexual battery, assault, and kidnapping.
The unit's success even garnered some Hollywood recognition when Martin Lawrence and Will Smith played TNT members in 1995's Bad Boys and 2003's Bad Boys 2.
Flynn retired from Miami-Dade in 2000 after 27 years on the force, with stints running the narcotics, internal affairs, and special patrol bureaus. By the time he left, he had noticed the department changing TNT's philosophy for the worse. The aggressive sweeps were still there — but the emphasis on good cops was not.
"They began only doing the reverse stings and jump-outs," says Flynn, who is now the police chief in Marietta, Georgia. "They were no longer doing the community policing I put into it."
The changes created a negative perception of TNT — a feeling fueled by some high-profile busts of cops who assisted with TNT takedowns.
In 2006, Det. Daniel Fernandez and another officer were arrested on official misconduct charges for allegedly stealing $970 in marked bills during a sting involving an admitted drug dealer who complained to internal affairs that the two cops had planted drugs on him and taken his cash in a previous bust. Fernandez was convicted of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and received a 21-month prison sentence last year.
Fernandez, a narcotics bureau detective, had been named Miami-Dade's distinguished officer of the year for coming under fire while helping TNT apprehend an armed, dangerous criminal. He had also received a gold medal of valor and a Purple Heart after he was shot in the back by a suspect he was chasing. But after Fernandez's arrest, state and federal prosecutors dropped more than two dozen cases that the detective had worked on. He was also kept off the witness stand against the man who shot him. Without Fernandez's testimony, Jim Druden was acquitted of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.
Then, two years after Fernandez's arrest, officers Michael king and Antonio Roberts, who assisted TNT execute search warrants and conduct drug sweeps, were among 40 suspects charged with federal racketeering and drug charges. The U.S. Attorney's Office alleges King and Roberts were tipping off drug dealers in Opa-locka about TNT drug sweeps. King pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and is serving a 60-month prison sentence. However, Roberts was acquitted in 2009.
Eric Matheny, a criminal defense attorney who was a Miami-Dade assistant state attorney for two years, says TNT today suffers from a philosophical problem at its core: Officers often have to assume the role of bad guys to do their job effectively.
"It's like the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington," Matheny says, referring to the Oscar-nominated film about a corrupt team of Los Angeles narcotics officers. "They almost have to step outside their roles as policemen and emulate the bad guys... Sometimes they forget that enforcing the law doesn't mean they are above the law."
On December 19, the first day of Santa's Helper, Elizabeth Level was across the street chatting with a neighbor when more than a dozen TNT cops stampeded through the front gate of the home she had bought in 1971 for $16,000. The 87-year-old retiree watched in horror as Det. Dwight Dominguez knocked down her 1-year-old great-granddaughter as he went to grab her grandson Dante. "I've never experienced anything like it," Elizabeth says. "The police were out of control that night."
The stories of the Levels and others snagged during Santa's Helper — who were just stats for TV reporters the night after the operation — illustrate why many people in their neighborhood say TNT busts forge a lack of trust between the area's residents and the undercover detectives prowling the streets.
Elizabeth is a perfect example. She says she wants the streets safe for her grandchildren — but not at the cost of her family living in fear of police. By the end of the day, three of her grandchildren were under arrest: 40-year-old Alexis, charged with cocaine possession; 30-year-old Dante, charged with marijuana possession; and 29-year-old Khalid, charged with obstruction of justice.
"Why not spend some time actually meeting the people who live here? They're out here wasting taxpayers' money putting five people in jail for the same joint," Elizabeth Level says.
She lives on a quiet tree-lined street in a residential neighborhood that would fit perfectly in a Norman Rockwell painting. Built in 1925, her abode is vintage Florida with its stucco façade and weathered wood floors.
Elizabeth made a living as a nurse's aide at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach for 34 years until she retired in 2006. She has paid off two mortgages on her house and has never been delinquent on her property taxes. During the 40 years she has raised three generations of Levels on NW 52nd Street, she has never been in trouble with the law. She spends her days looking after her 12 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her grandsons Dante and Khalid live nearby.
Dressed in a gray tank top and blue gym shorts on a recent weekday, the Georgia native corrals three of her toddler great-grandchildren into the living room and shakes her head dismissively when asked if her son and his friends were smoking pot the evening of Santa's Helper.
"Look at my yard," she says. "It's littered with cigar butts. These kids are smoking those Black & Milds all the time."
What's more, she says TNT officers were unnecessarily forceful. "They pushed my great-granddaughter to the floor," she says. "She's just a baby. The way they came in here was insulting and disrespectful."
The raid marked the second time in three months that TNT had ripped into her front yard to snatch a family member. Last October 22, while the team was arresting a couple of neighbors for allegedly smoking marijuana, Elizabeth's grandson Khalid was on the front step of the portico.
According to Dets. Jesus Martinez and Alexis Rodriguez, Khalid began mouthing off. He allegedly yelled, "Fuck all you pussies, soft-ass cops." The two officers alleged Khalid then punched and kicked them while resisting arrest for inciting a riot. Before that incident, Khalid had never been arrested for a violent crime. (He has two separate arrests for marijuana and cocaine possession, and a conviction in 2010 for possession of a controlled substance, for which he served 364 days.)
According to Elizabeth, Alexis, and neighbor Bobby Ricky Madison, the two detectives dragged Khalid off the front porch. "Once Khalid was on the sidewalk, the officer slapped him in his face with an open hand repeatedly," Madison says. "Khalid's daughter was crying, 'Why are you hitting my daddy?'" Alexis says Rodriguez knocked Khalid nearly unconscious. "I saw my brother's eyes roll back," she says. "He's lucky he didn't pass out."
Khalid filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade Police Department's internal affairs unit. Because it is still an open investigation, police officials cannot comment about it.
Two months later, the night of Santa's Helper, Khalid found himself in an all-too-similar situation. When the police showed up, he asked his grandmother if the cops had a search warrant. "That's when one of them goes, 'That's him, the one with the mouth,'" Khalid says. "I walked over to the neighbor's house and they followed me." Khalid was arrested for obstruction of justice. According to his arrest report, Khalid shouted, "Fuck the police," impeded a TNT investigation, and refused police orders to leave the scene.
(Nanney declined to comment about the Levels' complaints.)
Alexis also disputed the circumstances of her arrest December 19. According to her arrest report, TNT officers followed her into the house because she was holding a cigarette laced with cocaine. On the bed in her room, Det. Terence White claimed, he found a baggie containing less than a gram of coke.
"That's a bunch of bullshit," counters Alexis (who has two previous convictions for cocaine possession, but she insists she's now clean). She says she was already in her room with her wheelchair-bound daughter when the officers entered the house and arrested her. "I had a broom in my hand because I was cleaning up," she says.
Prosecutors evidently didn't have enough evidence. Four weeks after her arrest, charges were dropped.
The Levels are not alone in their criticism of TNT and Santa's Helper. On day two of the operation, Shenika Rollins was in the living room of the two-bedroom house she rents at 1550 NW 71st St., a few miles north of the Levels' home. "All of a sudden I hear a loud noise outside and police officers yelling," Rollins recalls. "There must have been like 20, 30 officers all over my front lawn. They had my son, son-in-law, and nephew on the ground."
Rollins says she repeatedly asked a Hispanic officer what was going on, but he wouldn't answer. "He told me to come out on the sidewalk and sit down," she says. "Next thing I know, I am in handcuffs."
A Miami Northwestern Senior High School alum, Rollins works as a part-time cashier at a Hess gas station. Nine years ago, she pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft, and in 2009 she served probation on a cocaine possession charge. Still, the 38-year-old single mom says her criminal record doesn't give TNT officers permission to be rude. "I inadvertently slumped against one of the officers," she says. "So he says to me: 'What am I? A fucking leaning post?' Another one told me to shut the fuck up."
Rollins didn't learn that she, along with three relatives and four friends, was being booked for pot possession until officers took her to the police department's Northside district headquarters.
According to the arrest reports, Det. Christopher Polack saw Rollins and her crew sharing a marijuana blunt. "I want them to drug-test me," Rollins says. "It's been four years since I smoked weed."
Operation Santa's Helper was the brainchild of Maj. Charles Nanney, a husky blond veteran who moved up the ranks after serving a stint as a narcotics bureau lieutenant who worked with TNT. (Lt. Jose Gonzalez, who oversaw Santa's Helper, declined to comment.) Four years ago, after then-TNT Det. Raymond Robertson was shot multiple times in front of several children during a firefight near an Opa-locka dope hole, Nanney decided the unit should help neighborhood kids during Christmas. The gesture, he hoped, might win hearts and minds.
"To show the kids we're not an occupying army, but an important part of the community," Nanney says, "we collected and delivered toys to the kids in the complex where Robertson was shot."
It has since become a TNT holiday tradition — but to fit TNT's mission, it's now been coupled with a massive street operation to bust potheads. "I got the idea for the name [Santa's Helper] because we were both helping kids and arresting bad guys prior to Christmas," Nanney says.
The numbers behind the bust, though, raise serious questions about whether Santa's Helper keeps the community safer. What's more, an analysis of the IA records of officers on TNT today paints a picture of a very different unit than the one during Flynn's time in the mid-'90s.
Of the 112 people rounded up during the December 19 sweep, 26 were never jailed, 71 were arrested for holding less than a gram of marijuana, and only three actual drug dealers were busted. Nine of the 112, or less than 10 percent, could be considered career criminals with past arrests for homicide, sexual battery, robbery, and kidnapping.
New Times also examined TNT's 2011 statistics, which show few gains in the War on Drugs during the past decade. In 2001, TNT made 5,255 arrests and seized 101 guns, 1,683 grams of crack cocaine, and 62 pounds of marijuana. Last year, it arrested 5,045 people, confiscated 71 guns, 837 grams of rocks, and 136 pounds of pot.
In other words: If the intent is deterrence, there hardly seems to be less drugs on the streets. Moreover, of the arrests last year, more than half were for misdemeanor pot possession — and only 64 marijuana dealers in all were busted by TNT.
Nanney, though, insists TNT is worth the cost. "We are not targeting the smokers," he says. "We are targeting high crime areas. Most of our children shot in Miami-Dade County have been shot due to turf wars and disputes at drug sale areas."
Some sociologists and criminologists call that kind of police thinking into question, though.
Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland criminal justice professor, says operations such as Santa's Helper do little to stem the tide of drugs on the streets.
"I am mystified by it," Reuter says. "It's not that pot use has gotten worse; it's just that more people are going to jail for it. I can't see any deterrent effects when pot possession charges are usually dismissed at an arraignment hearing. It is hard to justify making so many arrests when the end result is only a couple of days in jail."
Marvin Dunn, a Florida International University sociology professor and community activist, believes MDPD would be better off spending resources on putting more cameras on the streets to catch criminals committing violent crimes.
"The sweeps do nothing to reduce drug activities except to suppress it while the police presence is apparent," Dunn says. "After the cops are gone, it's back to business as usual."
Exacerbating the tension between residents and TNT is the unit's track record of excessive force. New Times has reviewed the personnel files of the 14 officers who participated in Santa's Helper and found they had been investigated by internal affairs a total of 44 times. A majority of the cases were for discourteousness and unprofessionalism, improper searches and seizures, and excessive use of force. In addition, the 14 officers have used force against subjects a combined 83 times.
Only one of those complaints was sustained — against Det. Dwight Dominguez in 2008 for improper police procedure — but the details in the IA files and use-of-force incident reports paint a picture of a unit that often doesn't toe the line when pursuing drug suspects.
Consider what happened to Matthew "Sonny" Stemage on a muggy afternoon last May 12. A 51-year-old recovering cocaine addict with a Fu Manchu mustache and short braids, Stemage steered his beat-up Scwhinn bicycle along Lucy Street near SW Seventh Place in Florida City. He had just left his mother's house, which was located near a known drug den in Homestead that was under surveillance by TNT Det. Joseph Amor. He radioed squad mates Harold Riobe Jr. and Carlos Reyes to take down Stemage, whom he had just allegedly seen exchange money for baggies of crack cocaine.
According to a use-of-force report, Stemage began to resist while Reyes searched his pockets. During the struggle, Reyes, Riobe, and Stemage fell to the ground. Two witnesses claimed both cops repeatedly struck Stemage, who already had one hand cuffed. Riobe (who has been cleared in three IA complaints and 11 use-of-force incidents) then smacked Stemage with his police radio, according to one witness. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
Or consider another incident, on January 28, 2011, when Sophia Murray was cruising on her bicycle near NW 46th Street and 23rd Avenue in Miami.
Murray complained she was struck from behind by an unmarked police car in which Riobe was riding shotgun. He and his partner arrested her on three felony charges of tampering with physical evidence and cocaine purchase and possession. According to the arrest report, she was observed buying crack cocaine from a nearby dope hole. Murray alleges Riobe called her a racial slur. He allegedly said, "You black bitch. You thought you did something witty? You are going to jail."
Riobe and his partner denied her accusations. With no independent witnesses, her complaint was not sustained.
Three months later, not far from where Murray was apprehended, Luis Rojas was stopped on his bicycle by TNT Det. Alexis Rodriguez, who has been the subject of nine IA complaints for using excessive force, discourteousness, and improper search and seizure. He's been cleared every time.
A 31-year-old Allapattah resident, Rojas claims Rodriguez punched him in the face repeatedly and then placed him in the bed of an unmarked Ford F-150 pickup driven by the detective's partner, Jesus Martinez. Fearing the cops were taking him somewhere secluded to rough him up more, Rojas began to scream for help. He claims Rodriguez continued to punch him, grabbed him by the throat, and told him to "shut the fuck up."
Rodriguez admitted to striking Rojas when he initially stopped him because he was resisting arrest with violence, but the TNT detective denied choking and punching the bicyclist. Rodriguez alleges Rojas swallowed a baggie of crack cocaine while he was trying to subdue him. With no independent witnesses, the complaint was declared "unfounded." Rojas is awaiting trial for tampering with evidence.
Complaints such as Rojas's, Murray's, and Stemage's are more than just disturbing to the community — they also often lead to cases getting dismissed, says former Miami-Dade prosecutor Eric Matheny.
Take the 73 people arrested for pot possession during the two days of Santa's Helper. More than half of them, 42 defendants, had charges dropped by prosecutors. Two others were acquitted, one by a jury and the other by a judge.
"When they do these huge sweeps, the police are only concerned with getting a high number of arrests," Matheny says. "The end result is a lot of bad searches, inadmissible evidence, and abuse at the hands of TNT cops."
However, Nanney says, the number of complaints against the 14 TNT detectives is not unusual.
"We don't use quotas," he says. "We evaluate and investigate each complaint on its own merits. These officers make a vast majority of arrests against violent, combative bad guys who are sometimes under the influence of drugs."
Dante Level sits on the front step of his mother's portico on the breezy afternoon of January 31. It's been more than a month since TNT dragged him, his brother, and his sister to jail, but they are still fuming — and dealing with the fallout. All three siblings owe serious money — even though they say their cases are bogus — and more important, they now feel unsafe in their grandmother's front yard.
Alexis's cocaine charge was dropped, but she had to pay $500 for bail. Dante was released the next morning after appearing before a judge. He was fined $498 that he doesn't have. Three arrests for marijuana sure won't help him land a decent job. Khalid, a hazel-eyed man with his siblings' names and a family tree tattooed on his right arm, says he owes his bondsman more than $3,000 for his two arrests at the hands of TNT. He says he plans to fight both cases against him.
"Now I will probably have to spend at least another $5,000 to get me a good lawyer," he says. "I have to pay for my freedom now."
His face scrunched into a scowl, Dante wonders why the MDPD doesn't concentrate on more pressing issues in his community. "Why are they spending tax dollars to harass people in their own front yard? Why don't they concentrate on solving the murders that go down in the Pork 'n' Beans projects or Overtown?" he asks. "What are they doing about the people whose identities are getting stolen?"
A couple of neighbors who walked over to talk about TNT nod their heads in agreement. "They should've called it Operation Harass the Neighborhood," one says.
Alexis notes that Miami officers cruise by her mother's house all the time and know the family. "They honk and wave when they pass by," she says. "But not TNT. They have no respect at all for the people who live here."
MDPD Director James Loftus has signaled that he still believes in the unit's work. In order to trim his department's $433 million budget, Loftus in February disbanded several theft task forces, as well as units focused on homeland security, agricultural patrol, and community policing. But Nanney says the department has cut TNT's overtime to zero, which means fewer operations like Santa's Helper. But the team will continue.
"Homicides, robberies, rapes — all those crimes against persons take priority over everything else," Loftus told the Miami Herald.
TNT has kept busy since Santa's Helper. Between the last week in December and the first week in February, the team seized nine firearms from subjects who were initially detained for marijuana possession, Nanney says.
"We have a duty to the citizens to rid the area of violence," he says. "We will continue to do so.
Although TNT hasn't returned to the Level home since December 19, Khalid leaves by 6 p.m. now, which is when the unit begins patrolling the neighborhood.
"All of a sudden, marijuana is more dangerous than crack," he says.