Miami Beach cops are paid up to $225K and face lawsuits galore
Miami Beach Police Officer Manuel Chorens has a round, fleshy face and an ample belly stretching the front of his blue uniform. His hair is streaked with white; his jet-black eyebrows are prominent over a flat nose.
Maybe he has pulled you over. Maybe you have passed him at CVS, where until recently he worked late-night shifts. You probably don't remember him.
But Chorens has secrets. For one, he's rich. In 2008, he pulled in $175,651.84.
Also, he's a crook.
In August 2008 at the Lincoln Road CVS — a drugstore blocks from the beach where hordes of tourists buy flip-flops and sunscreen — managers noticed goods disappearing from the shelves. They began watching the 14-year veteran cop. Soon they saw Chorens, who had been paid tens of thousands of dollars to protect their store, filling plastic CVS bags and stashing them in the security room in back. More than $5,000 worth of stuff went missing.
A CVS investigator decided to dig a little deeper. He noted the time each night Chorens showed up for his shift and when he clocked out. The hours didn't add up.
So someone from the store called internal affairs investigators, who poked around some more.
Sure enough, they found Chorens was blatantly cheating CVS. Night after night, he'd arrive around 8 p.m. and stay until 10 or 11. Sometimes he didn't even show up. On his pay sheets, though, he claimed six or seven hours at the drugstore.
Though internal investigators found video footage of Chorens stuffing bags and taking them home, they exonerated him of theft charges.
But this past September, Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega quietly suspended Chorens for 30 days for falsifying his hours.
Noriega's force has more secrets. A Miami New Times investigation has found that 200 officers — 54 percent of the 367 nonexecutive cops — made six figures last year. One of them raked in almost $214,000, more than the chief or the Beach's mayor. A sergeant earned just under $230,000 a few years ago; that's about equal to Vice President Joe Biden's annual salary.
It gets worse. The Beach force, which patrols an idyllic strip of sand relatively free of blight and gang violence, is not only the best paid in the region but also among the most troubled. Some examples:
• Officer Richard Anastasi, who earned $146,223.46 in 2009 before retiring in December, was charged last week with kidnapping a man and torturing him with threats of violence to try to extort $100,000.
• Officer Eric Dominguez, who pulled in $128,853 last year, nearly killed four motorcyclists while he was driving a city-owned car and abused sick time.
• Sgt. Jerome Berrian, who recently made $225,065 in one year, was accused of domestic violence and reprimanded for sleeping on the job.
• Officer Eliut Hazzi, who earned $108,371, has been accused of harassing gay men and abusing a shop owner on South Beach.
• Two other top earners — Sgt. Steven Feldman ($190,655.38) and Officer John Pereira ($133,842.85) — repeatedly harassed a pair of Arab officers, according to a lawsuit and an internal complaint.
The department also faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that officers systematically abused gay men near Flamingo Park. Another civil suit alleges top brass irresponsibly covered for a drug-addled officer who killed two men in four days. And a third accuses leaders of discriminating against an Arab-American reserve officer.
Many Beach cops, of course, earn their money working long, honest hours keeping the peace among SoBe's sweaty crowds of drunken visitors. Few other districts in America balloon from 80,000 workday residents to nearly 300,000 revelers on weekends, police leaders point out. The force is understaffed by a few dozen cops, they say, which leads to at least six weeks of forced overtime annually for most officers.
"We're underappreciated," says Sgt. Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. "There's no other force in the country that deals with the influx of tourists every single weekend that we have."
Adds Assistant Chief Raymond Martinez: "[Our] salaries are consistent with other large agencies in the South Florida area."
There's little question, however, that the combination of big money and little oversight is thinning Beach residents' wallets and risking their safety. Officers working massive overtime have fallen asleep in patrol cars and made life-threatening mistakes. And unless city leaders, who for decades have caved to powerful unions' demands, can rein in police pensions, each and every homeowner in Miami Beach could be looking at more than $450 in new taxes next year to help fill a $30 million budget gap.
"I certainly didn't realize our police officers were making so much money," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower says. "Most people are in a state of mind right now where they [will probably] think those kinds of salaries are just out of control."
The list goes from sergeants to lieutenants to ordinary beat cops. It includes 200 names, although 26 are blacked out because police who work undercover are guaranteed anonymity by Florida's Sunshine Law. Each cop listed — from an unnamed sergeant who pulled in $213,912, to Officer Dolores Martinez, who earned $100,049.35 — topped the six-figure mark in salary, overtime, and off-duty work between December 22, 2008, and the same date in 2009.
The command staff includes 22 employees who made six figures, including Chief Noriega's $208,783.73. (Noriega took a medical leave of absence last week. It's unclear when or if he will return. His replacement, Assistant Chief Raymond Martinez, earned $186,467 last year.)
Individual officers' total pay isn't often scrutinized, in part because some earnings come from private companies like CVS that hire police to work off-duty security — often for $20 to $30 per hour. Some officers combine this with taxpayer-funded overtime to double or even triple their salaries.
New Times sent letters through the MBPD public affairs office to the officers named in this story in order to give each a chance to respond. None chose to comment.
Some of the cops on the list are simply hard workers. The third highest earner last year, for instance, was Sgt. Hyok Chong, the force's only Korean speaker. He has amassed a clean IA file during 13 years on the job. He brought home $177,827.36 last year.
Then there's Sgt. Jerome Berrian. In 2004, Miramar Police responded to a call at the then-34-year-old patrol officer's home. Inside, they found his wife, Velma, had been hit in the lip and head. He was accused of domestic violence for striking her and trying to backhand her daughter during a fiery argument. The case was never prosecuted after Berrian's wife refused to press charges.
Three years later, in 2007, Berrian hauled in $225,065.15. About $38,000 of that came from an off-duty job, but from taxpayers he still made $77,000 in salary, $99,700 in overtime, and almost $10,000 in so-called premium pay, which is compensation for special classes, motorcycle work, and other tasks.
Over the past five years, in fact, Berrian has made more than three-quarters of a million bucks: $824,528 to be exact. He worked plenty of off-duty hours for private employers. But even if you subtract that pay, he still garnered more than $730,000 in tax dollars — $146,000 per year.
Berrian is a prime example of one of the dangers of allowing officers to work so much overtime. In February 2006, another sergeant found him asleep in his patrol car at Arthur Godfrey Road and Indian Creek Drive, which isn't exactly a quiet corner. He was supposed to be directing morning traffic during a boat show.
Scroll down the list a bit further to Officer Eric Dominguez, who earned $128,853.86 last year — $122,789.86 of which came from taxpayers. In 2001, the then-29-year-old beat cop earned headlines when a clubgoer at Level smashed a champagne bottle across his face during a melee at a Memphis Bleek rap show. Dominguez was hailed a hero. "A hit like that would bring anyone to their knees," Sgt. Richard Pelosi told the Miami Herald. "But this officer stayed conscious."
Dominguez's record isn't so heroic according to his IA file and court documents. On November 20, 2003, just after 8 p.m., he was speeding toward his home in Hialeah, weaving his city-issued 2003 Ford among cars on southbound I-75.
Osvaldo Dalama, a then 43-year-old from Miramar, saw Dominguez coming in the rear-view mirror of his motorcycle. His 20-year-old niece, Sujey Vega, hung on tightly as he slowed down. Dalama's good friends, Miramar cop Raul Gomez and his wife Yolanda, roared in front on another bike.
Just north of 154th Street, Dominguez rocketed past and swerved to pass a car. He didn't notice a Honda in his way until it was almost too late. Dominguez jerked to the right, hitting another car, which skidded across traffic right in front of the bikers.
Both motorcyclists hit the brakes, but there was nowhere to go. Dalama and Vega went flying; Gomez and his wife skidded off their bike. Thanks to their helmets, none of the bikers was killed. But all four were seriously hurt.
"Dominguez tried to tell the highway patrol he was on duty, but my friend says, 'Quit bullshitting us. I'm a cop too. You had no lights on, no jurisdiction — you were just driving like a maniac,'" Dalama says. "It's a good thing [Gomez] was there or I'm sure Dominguez would have lied his way out of it."
Last October, the City of Miami Beach settled a civil suit brought by the bikers and paid tens of thousands in taxpayer cash for their injuries. The exact dollar amount is confidential.
If the Miami Beach force punished Dominguez, there's no evidence in his IA file. Neither Dominguez nor the department responded to New Times' request for comment.
Instead, he kept working — or in some cases not working. Dominguez has been reprimanded four times in recent years for abusing sick leave. In 2008 alone, he used 170 hours of sick time — all while earning $134.859.04 in tax dollars ($69,424 in salary, $56,370 in overtime, and $9,064 in premium pay).
The ultimate example of Miami Beach PD's coddling of its worst cops is 34-year-old former history teacher Adam Tavss, who was hired in 2006. In his first year on the force, another officer complained she'd seen Tavss abusing cocaine at a police Christmas party.
But he kept his job, and on June 14 last year, he shot to death a tourist named Husien Shehada outside Twist nightclub on Washington Avenue. Surveillance video clearly shows Shehada raised his hands and turned toward Tavss just before the officer fired his gun. Tavss claimed Shehada had a weapon, but none was found on the scene.
Just four days later, Tavss was back on the beat. And before his shift ended, he had killed a 29-year-old semihomeless man named Lawrence McCoy Jr. Tavss said McCoy — who allegedly stole a cab and drove the wrong way on the MacArthur Causeway — had brandished a gun. As with Shehada, no weapon was discovered at the scene.
Assistant Chief Martinez says Tavss's return to duty after Shehada's shooting was consistent with department policy, and he was never dismissed following the cocaine complaint because he passed drug tests.
Tavss was not reachable for comment.
The department stood behind Tavss until September, when a drug test showed pot in his system. In November, he resigned — and picked up a $17,242.46 payout courtesy of Beach taxpayers.
They might pay more. Lawyer John Contini has announced plans to sue the department over both the deaths.
"Citizens and tourists ought to boycott Miami Beach for their own safety," Contini says. "You may hope police will protect you, but who will protect you from the police?"
One of the most disturbing stories to hit the MBPD ended just last week when former Officer Richard Anastasi was allegedly involved in a plot that began just past midnight March 11.
According to the FBI, here's what happened: An unnamed Russian man had allegedly gone to an apartment building on West Avenue where he believed a package was waiting for him. Instead, Anastasi and an accomplice, 42-year-old Francisco Arias, forced the man into a Jeep. Over the next week, they threatened to cut off the Russian's testicles; they also beat him, pointed semiautomatic weapons with laser sights at his head, and held pliers to his teeth. They forced him to call his mother in Russia to wire money, and took $1,000. At one point, Arias allegedly told the man they would "use him as fertilizer."
The pair demanded $100,000. Then the victim tricked them into a meeting last Thursday at 14th Street and Collins Avenue — with the feds listening in. When Anastasi and Arias rolled up in a black SUV, FBI agents swooped in for the arrest.
Inside the SUV, they found kidnapping tools including a shotgun, a rifle, duct tape, flex handcuffs, and fake police badges. Anastasi admitted to the FBI that he'd impersonated a cop and tried to scare the victim, though he denied trying to extort money. He faces federal charges that could carry a life sentence.
Anastasi retired this past December 6 with full pension and a $23,776.54 payout for unused vacation and sick time, according to city records. In his almost 14 years as a cop, he had amassed 17 complaints in his IA file — eight of which were substantiated and resulted in reprimands or suspensions.
Harold Strickland couldn't believe what he was seeing in his old neighborhood.
It was just past 1 a.m. on a balmy March Friday, and the 45-year-old Denver native was walking to his hotel after leaving Twist, where he had caught up with friends he hadn't seen since moving to Los Angeles five years earlier.
As he headed north on Michigan Avenue past Flamingo Park, Strickland noticed a couple of men kissing in a halogen-lit parking lot.
Then, suddenly, one of the men began to sprint north. Two others — both obviously plainclothes cops — dashed after him. Half a block later, one officer tackled the runner to the asphalt and pinned his arms.
The slower cop approached, still running, and kicked the prone man's head like a football. Over the next six minutes — a time lapse captured on tape after Strickland dialed 911 — the two officers punched and kicked the young man, berated him, and then, incredibly, arrested Strickland for watching it happen. They later filed a police report accusing the witness of trying to break into cars — a charge clearly contradicted by the 911 call record.
According to several Beach activists, it's just the latest abuse by a force with a spotty, decade-long history relating to gays. Of course, the latest case also involves two officers with bad records.
"What I saw that night was hate. Hate over the fact that someone is different," Strickland says. "Hate that someone's gender or sexuality is different. In my mind and heart, it was all based on hate."
The Miami Beach PD's first modern conflict with South Beach's gay community, by all accounts, came in late 1995 and early '96 when cops raided three gay clubs — Paragon, Twist, and Glam Slam — and busted dozens of patrons on drug charges. Gay leaders saw it as a crackdown on their community.
Police soon began larger outreach efforts to bridge the gap, and later that same year, the Miami Beach City Commission asked cops and gay leaders to collaborate on a new problem: gay men cruising Flamingo Park.
Gary Knight, then a member of the Beach's gay and lesbian task force, worked with police to spread the word the park was off-limits. For the most part, the collaboration worked, Knight says, but "one officer was abusing his role right away, spending all his time in Flamingo and harassing anyone gay," Knight recalls.
The cops who allegedly beat the gay man in front of Strickland continued that effort. Officers Eliut Hazzi and Frankly Forte had been hired in 2007. Both had run-ins with IA and their bosses before that March night.
Forte had been put on probation as an officer-in-training for repeatedly botching responses and ignoring radio calls. But he nevertheless earned a full-time job, records show.
On March 2, 2008 — about a year before his encounter with Strickland — Hazzi was involved in another ugly incident. Santos Ordoñez, the manager of Gallery Deja Vu on Ocean Drive, had gone out with friends after work and had a few beers. A little after 11 p.m., he returned to the gallery for his car keys and accidentally set off the security alarm. He called the gallery owner and the security company, but police responded anyway.
The officers — Hazzi and two others — burst in with a police dog and hit him in the face, Ordoñez says. The blow was strong enough to break several teeth. After wrestling the manager into a police car, the cops zapped him with a stun gun, Ordoñez claims. "They never even gave me a chance to explain who I was," he says.
IA exonerated all three officers of charges of excessive force. The then-26-year-old Hazzi was back on the streets and eventually partnered with Forte.
That March night in 2009, Strickland stayed on the line with a 911 dispatcher as he watched the young suspect get roughed up. As he described the beating to an operator, he suddenly sounded confused, adding, "They're coming after me." Hazzi and Forte forced him to lie on the ground, Strickland says. Then one of them said, "We know what you're doing here. We're sick of all the fucking fags in the neighborhood."
In their arrest report, Forte and Hazzi say they watched Strickland trying to open multiple car doors and looking suspicious. Strickland initially pleaded no contest to loitering and prowling charges so he could leave the lockup. But he later successfully withdrew the plea with the ACLU's help.
In addition to the contradictory 911 calls, ACLU lawyer Rob Rosenwald says the two officers gave him false depositions about the arrest.
At a meeting this February 9 after Strickland announced plans to sue, Chief Noriega met with members of the Beach's LGBT Business Enhancement Committee. "I thought we had a great relationship here," he told them.
But several group members disagreed. Chip Arndt, who runs a gay Democratic caucus, read an email from a young gay tourist who said Miami Beach cops slammed him with gay slurs and ran him and his boyfriend off the sand. "You may think that what happened to Howard was an isolated incident, but it wasn't," Arndt said.
Noriega's chief spokesman, Det. Juan Sanchez, who is gay, was given a seat on the GLBT committee. Sanchez has promised to better address hate crime calls to a hot line. And a lesbian captain was assigned to internal affairs to handle complaints.
"I believe we have always maintained a positive relationship with the city's GLBT community," Assistant Chief Martinez says.
Hazzi and Forte have been reassigned to desk work while IA reviews what the chief called "inconsistencies" in their report.
Hazzi, incidentally, earned $108,371.27 last year. Forte isn't among the 200 cops who made six figures.
After his arrest, Strickland says, he was traumatized. During a night in jail, he contends officers said he "looked like a fag" and threatened to falsely charge him with drug possession, promising they could make him "disappear." Once he finally got out, Strickland threw away every item of clothing he'd worn that day, stayed with a friend for the night, and then left Miami. He hasn't been back since.
His business, setting up household help for wealthy clients, suffered when background checks picked up on his bogus arrest, he says.
"I still care about Miami Beach. It breaks my heart that this is how the department treats gay men here," he says. "There need to be some serious changes in the department."
The allegations of improper treatment of minorities aren't limited to gays. Officer Rabih El-Jourdi and his nephew Feras Mohammad Ahmad say the department discriminated against them. El-Jourdi was hired in 1999. Almost immediately, he says, other officers began mocking his Muslim faith and Arabic heritage.
His first field training officer called him a "camel jockey and a sand nigger," he says in a series of internal affairs complaints. His second one called him a "rag head" and a "shit bird." Once, a few years later, when his patrol car became stuck on the beach, another officer asked, "Your camel got stuck in the sand? I thought you were from the desert, and you don't get stuck in the sand," El-Jourdi says.
Two of the officers he says most frequently tormented him — Sgt. Steve Feldman and Officer John Pereira — are, incidentally, two of the highest paid in the department. Feldman recently earned $190,655.38; Pereira picked up $133,842.85 last year.
According to El-Jourdi, Feldman was fond of patting him down and asking "Where is your C-4?" insinuating he was a suicide bomber. Pereira, he says, refused to stop calling him a "camel jockey."
El-Jourdi claims he waited years to report the incidents because he wanted to be a "team player." But then his nephew, Sweetwater Police Officer Feras Ahmad, began working in 2007 on the Beach as a reserve officer. Ahmad immediately faced the same racial slurs and intimidation, El-Jourdi says.
In November 2008, Ahmad filed a civil suit against the City of Miami Beach and the police department, detailing the charges. El-Jourdi, in turn, made an internal affairs complaint. IA investigators ruled the complaint "unsubstantiated" — largely because it came down to a he-said/she-said with the other officers.
The city and the cops have denied the accusations and asked a judge to dismiss them.
Assistant Chief Martinez says the force's overall diversity belies any charges of racism: "Currently, 73 percent of the sworn personnel of the department are minorities and 56 percent of the supervisors (sergeants and above) are minorities."
Despite all of those problems, Beach cops earn more than those at other, similarly sized departments in the county. In Hialeah, a force with 333 sworn officers, 30 cops topped $100,000 in taxpayer-funded salaries and overtime last year, according to city records. That's only 9 percent of the department, compared to half of officers on the Beach.
It's even more than tony Coral Gables, where 30 percent of the force earned $100,000 or more, or North Miami Beach, where the number was roughly 40 percent.
The City of Miami has 84 cops whose base salaries top $100,000 — including Chief Miguel Exposito's $196,000 a year — which is 7 percent of the force's 1,110 cops. But that number doesn't include overtime work, which the city claimed it was unable to calculate.
Miami-Dade officials refused to release their police force's numbers unless New Times paid $450 for the public records.
And all of that money hasn't bought better policing on the Beach, according to national stats compiled by the FBI. Beach cops "cleared," or solved, 15 percent of crimes — less than Hialeah, North Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade County, which cleared 21 percent, and about equal to Coral Gables and the City of Miami.
But the Beach cops were abysmal in some important areas, solving just 8 of 50 rapes reported — by far the worst average in county — and only 9 percent of car thefts.
Cops' salaries and pensions, along with precipitously dropping property taxes, might just bankrupt the City of Miami Beach. It's facing at least a $30 million budget gap, and its leaders are hard-pressed to rein in police spending. Much of the problem traces to a union agreement that favors cops over taxpayers.
"This contract has been negotiated during more than three decades, so it's very difficult to try to change it in just one sitting," says Jorge Gonzalez, Miami Beach's city manager.
The current three-year contract was negotiated in the heady summer of 2006, when real estate was still on the way up and Miami Beach's bank account was fat. Here's what the agreement guaranteed for Beach cops:
• New hires start at more than $48,000, and cops are guaranteed a 5 percent annual raise every year for their first seven years.
• The city pays for cops' take-home cars, equipment, eyeglasses, and even sunglasses.
• Officers have up to 26 days off each year, including holidays and their birthday, plus up to 12 days of sick leave.
• A "me too" clause guarantees that any new perk negotiated by the firefighters' union also automatically gets added to the cops' pact and vice versa.
To those standard guarantees, the city tossed in additional cost-of-living pay increases that averaged about 5 percent a year, 40 hours more of vacation that retiring cops can sell back to the city for cash when they leave, and an extra $10 a month for "uniform cleaning allowances."
Not a bad deal, right?
The FOP has garnered the money in part by playing to public sympathy. In January, police boycotted off-duty work during Super Bowl week and packed city commission meetings. For politicians, it's not easy to oppose the guys keeping the neighborhood safe.
"Who wants to piss off a cop?" says Florida State Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami legislator who has introduced a bill this year that would cap pension benefits for public safety workers at a state level. "We need to address these contracts in Tallahassee because it's almost impossible for local municipalities to take on police departments."
What's more, the FOP endorses candidates each election season. The endorsement not only allows a candidate to claim the "law and order" vote but also means the FOP will encourage its members and friends to donate cash.
Two Miami Beach elected officials, who asked not to be named in this story, say union endorsement is all about money. When the union invites candidates for an interview, they say, the only questions asked are about the contract.
In good years, like 2006, that kind of pressure might not matter as much. But this is anything but a good year. The latest estimate from city actuaries shows a $30 million gap between revenues and spending for 2010.
Roughly half of that deficit comes from plummeting property values. The other half is largely due to skyrocketing pension payouts to the fund that covers police officers and firefighters.
To fix the budget gap, city leaders have proposed that police officers pay 12 percent of their salary — a 2 percent hike — each year into their pensions, that they agree to a two-year freeze in the guaranteed 5 percent raises, and that new hires will be allowed to retire only after age 50. (Now officers can retire whenever their age and years of service add up to 70; so a cop who begins work at age 20 can conceivably retire at age 45.)
In early negotiations, the police union has offered to forgo cost-of -living increases for the next two years and to pay an extra 2 percent into the pension fund for one year.
That should be enough to help balance the books, says FOP President Bello. "We sure as hell aren't going to give up everything we've fought to earn over the last 50 years," he says.
Bello says lack of funding, not six-figure salaries, is the problem. In good times, Beach PD was slated to have more than 400 sworn cops — today there are only 367.
"We're in the middle of four weeks of spring break, and we're forcing our guys to work overtime to deal with the country's spring breakers," Bello says. "It's just one event after another on the Beach, yet we're forced to fight with city leaders to show what we're worth."
To Mayor Bower, that argument rings hollow. "This isn't a good year to make the same demands as in years past. I know this is a dangerous job, but they went into the police force knowing that. We're going to need to hold the line on the budget, and part of that means everybody has to give up something."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.