The Dade County school police force's 147 officers are expected to know when to haul lawbreakers to jail and how to defuse a schoolyard fight before it escalates into a riot. The officers also work as disciplinarians, counselors, and role models for Dade's 341,000 students.
Not only do their jobs require them to combine the skills of law enforcement experts and educators, they must also answer to their own chain of command as well as to a conflicting array of district supervisors and managers. Officers at other police agencies answer only to superiors in a single, military-style command structure. Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recognizes the challenge school police officers face in fulfilling their obligations as law enforcement officers while working with civilian oversight. "They need to balance the needs of principals, school administrators, children, parents, and the community they are located in," Fernandez Rundle states, "in addition to those of other police departments and our office."
Although the school police department requires officers to apply these special skills, it fails to use basic management strategies -- providing salaries equivalent to or above those paid by similar-size Florida police agencies, and administering comprehensive screening tests and procedures -- that other South Florida police departments use to ensure the quality of their recruits. As a result, school police have acquired an unfavorable reputation compared to officers in other departments, some local law enforcement executives say.
A starting school police officer's salary is $25,500; Coral Gables, with 156 officers, pays starting salaries of $32,500; Miramar employs 117 officers, and first-year recruits earn $31,250; and the Fort Myers Police Department, with 162 officers, pays rookies $26,998. Even some significantly smaller departments pay more than the school district: Homestead, with 76 officers, pays $27,061 to start; Sweetwater, which employs only 22 full-time officers, pays $27,416.
With such low salaries, it's no surprise the department doesn't always attract the top graduates of Dade's police academy (formally called the School of Justice and Safety Administration at Miami-Dade Community College). "Why would officers who are already certified [by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement] come here unless they were rejected by other places?" asks school police officer Ralph Gomez. "They would use this place as a last resort. This is why they can't keep good officers. They know the salary is not going to change."
One reason the school police department is considered an agency of last resort is this: Officer candidates are not required to undergo two basic screening procedures employed by most other police agencies -- a psychological evaluation and a polygraph test.
An officer who fails a polygraph test can create problems for his department in the future. In a courtroom setting, for example, a defense attorney can use the test results to challenge an officer's credibility. Law enforcement experts also assert that a psychological exam is the best tool for weeding out officers who pose threats to the public. "The reason you do a psychological test is really the same as why you do a physical examination -- to make sure [officers] can do the tasks," says Stephen W. Mitchell, program manager at the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in Fairfax, Virginia. The commission evaluates police departments nationwide and issues accreditation to those that meet its rigorous standards. Psychological tests are a requirement for agency accreditation. Adds Mitchell: "You want to screen out those who would tend to use their authority inappropriately against citizens."
All Metro-Dade Police Department recruits must pass a psychological evaluation. "We felt it was so important that we asked the county commission to make it an ordinance," says Fred Taylor, who recently retired after a 35-year career with Dade's largest police force, the last 10 as its director. "It does screen out extremely deviant behavior, which you can't do in a training situation. It screens out those who have marginal psychological traits -- a quick temper, immaturity."
Even some school police officers themselves fret over the district's practice of hiring applicants who have failed one or both of the tests while applying for work at other agencies. One veteran officer likens the situation to "a nightmare waiting to happen. They put these guys in with children and they haven't passed psychologicals?" he asks rhetorically. "It's frightening."
Florida law requires all police departments to use an additional screening in order to detect histories of violence, dishonesty, or serious disciplinary infractions. All departments must conduct thorough background checks on each new recruit. Dade's school police department follows the law but has no policy dictating the elimination of candidates if they have been disciplined for serious infractions of department rules. New Times examined background reports on 33 officers, including 20 hired during the last three years and 13 hired before 1994. Nine, or more than one in four, had failed their psychological exams or had been rejected by another agency during training, or had been fired.
Among the ten highest-ranking officers in the school police department, two -- both now assistant chiefs -- were rejected by the Metro-Dade Police Department in the early Eighties because they failed their psychological tests, according to the school district's own background reports. Assistant chiefs Charles Martin and Jose "Pepe" Gonzalez deny that they failed the Metro test and Martin claims the school's background investigator was mistaken. To support his assertion, Martin produced a 1981 letter from a psychologist describing various traits attributed to him, but which made no evaluation regarding his fitness for police work. Gonzalez provided no supporting documentation. Neither man would allow Metro-Dade to release his test results, which the county considers confidential.
Evelio Rodriguez, a third high-ranking officer and one of seven captains on the school police force, was fired from the Metro-Dade Police Department in June 1984, during his probation period, for using excessive force against a prisoner, according to Rodriguez's school background report. Metro-Dade internal affairs investigators determined that Rodriguez dragged a suspect by the hair to his patrol car, slammed his face against a seat, and hit him on the head with his hand in front of a witness, according to the school police background report.
Fred Taylor says a department is ethically obligated to determine that new recruits do not have any history of serious violations of law or policy before they are hired. "If they were fired for cause, it would be very rare to hire someone like that," he explains, "because it would be negligent hiring."
In an effort to enhance its hiring process, the school police department in the last three years has improved the way it gathers recruits' employment and personal histories. But Chief Vivian Monroe still has the discretion to hire candidates who have been fired or disciplined elsewhere. A case in point is Ofcr. Nelson Fernandez.
During his four-year stint at the Hialeah Police Department, Fernandez was suspended four times for a total of 90 working hours. One of the suspensions resulted from his having referred to blacks as "niggers"; another was punishment for "revealing the content of an official police document." In addition, he was reprimanded five times for infractions ranging from "improper conduct toward the public" to conduct unbecoming an officer. He was finally fired for working at his family's towing business, Fuzz Wrecker Service, while on duty and after informing a supervisor that he had resigned from the company, according to his school police background file and Hialeah personnel records.
In 1994 the Opa-locka Police Department refused to hire Fernandez because he failed both the psychological and the polygraph tests. The polygraph examiner found that he displayed signs of deception when answering nine questions, including one about his use of excessive force on the job. A psychologist who evaluated Fernandez for the Opa-locka department determined that "the applicant's ability to tolerate the high stresses faced by a law enforcement officer is very questionable."
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The Dade school police investigator, Sgt. John Hunkiar, also noted in his background report that Fernandez "falsified" his employment application by not disclosing his failed attempt to join the Opa-locka force, a disclosure required by the school police department's application process. When Hunkiar confronted Fernandez, he denied having applied at Opa-locka.
Hunkiar's supervisor, Capt. Claudia Milton, provided all of this background information to Chief Vivian Monroe. In May of this year, Monroe hired Fernandez anyway.
Officer Fernandez defends his integrity, explaining that he joined the police department because he wants to serve the public. "People who know me know I'm honest," he says. "People talk a lot of trash about me. It's all rumor."
-- Paula Park