Internal-affairs investigators say their cases have been manipulated by corrections department supervisors
Internal-affairs investigators say their cases have been manipulated by corrections department supervisors
Photo by Steve Satterwhite

It's Broken, So Fix It

About a month ago Lois Spears, director of Miami-Dade's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, picked up the phone. She must have gritted her teeth when she punched the numbers to the Miami-Dade Police Department. No one in a position of power, especially in law enforcement, is fond of asking for help.

But the clear necessity of the call trumped professional pride: Dark deeds were occurring inside the corrections department's sensitive internal-affairs bureau. "Yes, she called me," Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez confirms. "They were having problems with the quality of the investigations and the level of training." Alvarez understates, adding that he assigned officers from his professional compliance bureau to investigate and make recommendations. (Spears was unable to comment for this story owing to illness.)

Spears must have known that fixing the problem would require far more than mere recommendations. Drastic measures were needed to address credible allegations that internal-affairs supervisors, including the official in charge, were altering reports in order to protect people they favored. Some observers believe the alleged actions constituted criminal conduct. Last week Spears removed Joyce Chester as head of internal affairs (IA).

Chester, a 29-year veteran of the corrections department, had overseen a captain, two lieutenants, eight sergeant investigators, and three civilian investigators. Their job: investigate employee misconduct within the sprawling 2650-person department, everything from complaints of discourtesy and sexual harassment to drug-dealing and brutality against inmates. The IA staff, housed in isolated offices to shield them from potential conflicts, prepare reports that are reviewed by top corrections officers.

But for a year now, IA staffers and their union representatives have complained that the bureau itself needs to be investigated. Several allege that Chester and her command staff have ordered them to rewrite reports, dropping charges against certain individuals. In other instances, allegations have been changed after the employee had reviewed them as required by department policy. Sometimes, sources say, complaints have simply disappeared. "My concern is that this is happening in a unit that's supposed to protect the integrity and ethics of the department," says one corrections officer.

"That absolutely, positively is not true," fumes Chester, who is being transferred to another facility within the corrections department. Reports are ordered to be rewritten if they are redundant, she says, while acknowledging that sometimes allegations are changed after the subject reviews them: "But we have the employee come back and sign them again."

Where do IA investigators go to have IA investigated? In this case, their union, the Police Benevolent Association. Spears and union officials have met at least twice to discuss investigators' accusations. "In recent months [the PBA] has become aware of allegations of misconduct and mismanagement by Chief Joyce Chester and various members of her command staff," wrote PBA staff counsel Simone Lopez in a cautious response to a request for comment.

"An initial investigation was conducted which confirmed certain allegations. This prompted a meeting between the PBA and director Lois Spears.... She immediately took steps to investigate and rectify the problems. In doing so, she has informed the PBA of her intention to remove Chief Chester from her position."

At worst the allegations against IA supervisors could be considered criminal -- altering a public record is official misconduct. At best they indicate a blatant disregard for law-enforcement procedures. I reviewed a couple of the reports alleged to have been altered. One involved an inmate who escaped from a detention center at the criminal courthouse. In February 2000 Robert Hill, charged with DUI and possession of cocaine, slipped through the open door of a holding cell and mingled with a group of prisoners about to be released. After he was caught two days later, Hill explained how he walked out the unsecured door and stood before a female corrections officer who "seemed confused by what she was doing." Then she let him go. An inmate with Hill at the time said he tried to tell officers about the escape but no one would listen to him.

Five corrections officers were targeted for investigation in the escape incident. They were accused of departmental misconduct, negligence, improper procedures, and conduct unbecoming an officer. But two weeks into the probe, IA Capt. Eduardo Clemente abruptly stopped it. "After further supervisory review following the investigation, it has been determine [sic] that this case does not contain the basis for an IA investigation." Clemente wrote that "irregularities" disqualified it as an IA case: Hill mistakenly had been listed as a complainant, and the investigation supposedly failed to determine who was responsible for the escape. The matter was simply closed. There's no record of any officers being disciplined. Sources now say there was pressure to quietly bury the case because it was so embarrassing.

In contrast, a corrections officer's complaint that she was sexually harassed by her female superior in 1998 took three and a half years to complete. The officer charged that her supervisor, a lieutenant, ordered her to drive the two of them to the officer's house. "What a sexy bedroom!" the lieutenant allegedly exclaimed once inside. After the officer rebuffed the advances, she complained that she was relentlessly disparaged and threatened by the lieutenant. IA opened the case on December 4, 1998. The last witness was interviewed on April 20, 1999. But the matter then languished for more than two years. Sources familiar with the case say it remained with a lieutenant for eleven months, after which the original investigator was ordered to rewrite it and drop several allegations. Eventually a new supervisor reviewed the case and forced the allegations to be reinstated. Five of the charges were sustained and the lieutenant was disciplined.

Normally this kind of situation would qualify as ironic -- after all, internal affairs investigates things like altered reports. But because this happens to be the corrections department internal-affairs bureau, it's more like a cliché. Scandals there are common.

In May 1998 the Independent Review Panel, a civilian board that examines complaints against county employees, excoriated corrections IA for its "foot dragging" in the case of an inmate beaten bloody by a half-dozen guards in 1994. Despite the testimony of six corrections officers who witnessed the beating, IA took three years to complete its investigation and confirm that excessive force had been used -- long enough for the witnesses to suffer plenty of threats and harassment at work.

Later in 1998, former county Manager Merrett Stierheim released a consultant's report that determined internal-affairs staffers were so undertrained that within the department they were considered a "joke."

Corrections is so dysfunctional that county Commissioner Joe Martinez, who chairs the public safety committee, wants to study the feasibility of placing it under the control of the police department. Aside from efficiency and cost benefits, Martinez thinks it would also improve accountability. "Then internal affairs for the police department would handle all the investigations," he notes.

This is a propitious time for scrutiny. Director Spears is scheduled to retire within the year, which creates an opportunity for Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver to appoint a strong director with a mandate for reform. That, however, will be a challenge. For years the corrections and rehabilitation department has been a bureaucratic ghetto, rife with cronyism, racial and ethnic tensions, and financial mismanagement. For any new director, a trustworthy and respected internal-affairs bureau will be essential to reform.


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