A Kindler, Gentler Miami Beach Police Department
Since his arrival in May 1990, Miami Beach Police Chief Phillip Huber has taken a number of steps to erase public perception that his department is rife with gay-bashing bruisers. The boldest measure, one widely praised by gay activists, was the introduction in spring 1991 of sensitivity classes designed to imbue cops with a better understanding of South Beach's gay community.
Until recently Ed Parsons had never heard of such classes. At this point, though, it's a safe bet he wouldn't wish them on his worst enemy. A recent South Beach transplant, Parsons claims he was assailed on the evening of January 11 by a pair of Beach cops who roughed him up, hurled gay slurs at him, and arrested him on a bogus charge. It was in the midst of this ordeal, he says, that one of the officers introduced him to the concept of sensitivity training. "Aren't you glad we took the homo course?" the officer allegedly queried. "We learned a lot, didn't we?"
So much for enforced enlightenment.
Police investigators initially dismissed Parsons's complaint, which he filed January 13. But Parsons refused to let the matter drop. In a volley of letters to city officials, he successfully lobbied police to reopen the matter. Two weeks ago internal affairs investigators substantiated three of his four allegations. The report concludes that officers Jonathon Brudzinski and Bernie Ruder did not use excessive force in arresting Parsons, but that they slandered their suspect and that Brudzinski mishandled the arrest procedure and filed an arrest form containing false information.
Mike Finesilver, Parsons's attorney, says he met with Miami Beach City Manager Roger Carlton several weeks ago, as police were finishing their investigation. He says Carlton offered Parsons a "public apology" and a promise to discipline the officers. "Two things which are his obligation in the first place," observes Finesilver, whose client intends to sue the city.
Parsons, an unretiring 35-year-old who describes himself as a born-again Christian, moved from West Palm Beach to a Collins Avenue apartment this past October. He believes his January run-in was the result of mistaken identity, a claim the policemen steadfastly deny. As Parsons recounts it, he had just finished an oceanside night run and was on his way to pick up some dinner when the officers stopped him on the beach near Seventeenth Street. He says Brudzinski immediately asked his partner, "Isn't that the asshole we arrested last week?" Parsons, a registered nurse, started to explain that he had never been arrested. "That's when the fun began," he says. "The cops came at me together, like a timed attack. One guy nearly dislocated my right shoulder. The other hit my left shoulder. They yanked my arms back, forced me onto my knees, pushed my head toward the sand, and handcuffed me."
According to Parsons, twenty minutes of verbal abuse followed: "The first officer, Brudzinski, was saying things like, `You homos make me sick. We just arrested a bunch of your asshole buddies.'" The officers then got on the radio, presumably to run a criminal check on Parsons. "After that," Parsons says, "they became much more conciliatory. They must have realized they had the wrong guy." In fact, while Brudzinski had drawn up an arrest form for loitering and prowling -- a charge that requires a suspect be taken into custody -- the officers wound up releasing Parsons, after waiting 30 minutes for transportation that could take Parsons to jail.
Badly shaken by the incident, Parsons consulted friends and three days later filed a complaint with the Miami Beach Police Department. He was interviewed by Sgt. Steven Jones, who took sworn statements from both officers a week later. Ruder and Brudzinski, who both joined the force as full-time officers in June 1990, denied manhandling Parsons or directing any derogatory comments at him. They asserted that Parsons had been uncooperative and could not justify his presence in the area. Brudzinski and Ruder have since retained an attorney and both declined comment for this article. Their personnel files contain glowing evaluations and no major reprimands, though Brudzinski was investigated on an excessive-force complaint in 1990. He was exonerated.
On January 29, Jones closed his investigation and "unfounded" the allegations. Attorney Finesilver calls that decision "laughable. When you unfound an allegation, you are saying that it has no factual basis, or that the person admitted making it up. In this case, it was my client's word against the cops." (By contrast, an "unsubstantiated" classification would have indicated there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegation.)
Parsons was shocked when he learned of the decision. For a few months he put the matter aside, but remained seething. On May 7 he hand-delivered a five-page, single-spaced letter to Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber. The missive outlined the incident and asked for $20,000 in damages, citing mental trauma and an injury to his right shoulder. Gelber alerted City Manager Carlton, who took the issue to Chief Huber. On May 21, the investigation was reopened.
"I got a call from Sgt. Jones," Parsons recalls. "He said he had been ordered to reopen the case by the chief. I remember specifically he told me, `It's a waste of my time.' There was something almost belligerent in his tone." Jones calls this version of the conversation "absurd. I would never make any such comment."
The "reinvestigation" essentially consisted of giving Parsons a polygraph test, something he had agreed to back in January, when he first filed his complaint. While both police officers refused to submit to a polygraph -- their option under the Police Bill of Rights -- Parsons submitted to the test, after speaking with Huber in late May. Parsons passed the test, administered by polygrapher Kent Jurney. Police then had the test reviewed by a second polygrapher, who supported Jurney's conclusion. On this basis, Sgt. Jones substantiated the allegation that 37-year-old Ruder and 25-year-old Brudzinski had verbally harassed Parsons. Curiously, during the test's preinterview, Jurney, a former state trooper, asked Parsons about the alleged use of excessive force. In consultation with a police legal advisor, Jurney decided that no excessive force had been used and did not question Parsons about it during the test. Though Parsons still insists he was roughed up, his excessive-force complaint was again dismissed.
But by concluding that the officers did verbally abuse Parsons, Finesilver observes, the department is admitting that Ruder and Brudzinski lied under oath. "It's called perjury," says the former Broward prosecutor.
"The officers may very well have used `homosexual' or some other language without meaning offense," Jones counters. "But that doesn't mean his story holds up beyond any reasonable doubt. We're just giving him the benefit of the doubt."
In reviewing the case, Finesilver spotted another unsettling discrepancy. Parsons's arrest form indicated that he had been "arrested and transported," when in fact he was released at the scene. Finesilver maintains that Brudzinski's failure to note the release was an intentional effort to make a bogus arrest appear more legitimate. "Here they are, they've dug themselves a deep hole with all this homo stuff and a violent takedown, and they need to make this thing look legitimate," the attorney contends. "But there never was any loitering. This was a crime they made up in an attempt to have the State Attorney's Office wash their dirty hands." Prosecutors, in fact, dismissed the loitering charge months ago.
While conceding that Brudzinski did, technically, write a false police report, internal affairs's Sgt. Jones believes the officer's failure to note Parsons's release was "an honest mistake. He forgot to cross a line on the police report. I don't think this was an `Uh-oh, we messed up; we better arrest this guy' type of situation."
Unless the city is willing to shell out the bucks, Finesilver says, a jury will be the final arbiter on that point. "This attempt to build a bridge with the gay community makes for nice words," says Finesilver, who last week drafted a letter of intent to sue the city. "But in this case, at least, there hasn't been much substance behind those words."
Clark Reynolds, Miami Beach coordinator of the gay lobbying group Dade Action PAC, insists the Parsons case is an apparent exception to improved relations. "We're hearing comments from people who tell us the Beach police have made great progress," Reynolds reports. "There are always a few bad apples."
Parsons himself says he became so rattled by the incident that he moved back to his boyhood home in Long Island, New York. "The whole thing made me uncomfortable. Just seeing the officers upset me," he notes. But unless the city accedes to Parsons's monetary demands -- as yet undetermined -- he may find himself back in Dade, again facing Brudzinski and Ruder. This time as a plaintiff.
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