Reporters love stories about bad cops. Cops on the take. Cops on the make. Cops who beat up civilians and then lie about it. Because cops are supposed to protect us from evil, not succumb to it, a bad cop story packs a heavy payload of irony. And because reporters are suckers for irony, lots of bad cop stories get written. Here in Dade County, where allegations of police misconduct are capable of sparking riots, examples abound. Sharpshooter William Lozano. Convicted wife murderer Ted McArthur. The drug-happy Miami River Cops.
The result is an understandable grudge. Ask a police officer about the media and he's likely to look at you as if he's just bitten into a lemon. The media only write negative stories, he'll grouse.
One striking exception to this axiom was Tropic magazine's September 29, 1985, cover story, "The Rapist and the Cop." The piece chronicled the remarkable efforts of one Metro-Dade police detective in pursuing the notorious Pillow Case Rapist, who victimized at least 43 women during a five-year spree that ended in 1986 after police released a composite of the suspect.
"In recent months, police have not been relying on legions of cops to solve the case. They have been relying on just one man, one extraordinarily meticulous cop," author Joel Achenbach noted. "He arrives for work an hour before midnight, neatly barbered, in a European-cut three-piece Yves Saint Laurent suit, silk tie, and carefully polished Florsheims. He looks more like a doctor than a cop, he's so clean and solid and calm. He is not a big man, but the jaw is strong, the chin jutting, the blue eyes confident. He is fastidiously square, radiating rectitude. His name is Spiffy, except to strangers and criminals, who know him as Sgt. David Simmons."
The story painted Simmons as a paragon of investigative acumen. "Best detective I've ever seen," one of his colleagues stated flatly.
"It would be hard for any man to stare into the glare of such honesty and not want to confess," Achenbach seconded.
In the decade since the Tropic story appeared, David Simmons has handled dozens of high-profile cases. Now 45 years old, he has been lionized by Edna Buchanan in her true crime paperbacks. And as a sergeant in Metro-Dade's child-exploitation unit, he has been lauded by superiors and subordinates alike.
These days, though, the man whose dapper dress earned him the nickname Spiffy is keeping a lower profile. He spends his weekdays cruising the streets of Liberty City in a marked police car, supervising a squad of six patrolmen. The Yves Saint Laurent suits are stowed away in his closet, replaced by the drab brown of a patrol uniform. The big name cases are gone, too, given way to a blur of domestic disputes, the occasional stabbing.
Curiously, Simmons's personnel file contains virtually nothing that would indicate why one of Metro-Dade's finest investigators is no longer an investigator, only notations reflecting that he was transferred to a patrol unit sixteen months ago at the behest of Cmdr. Antonio Prieto, chief of the Juvenile Investigations Bureau. But the transfer has become the subject of a lengthy legal squabble. Simmons, who filed a grievance seeking reassignment to an investigative post, claims he was exiled because he alleged that Prieto had committed administrative misdeeds. The commander counters that Simmons is a troublemaker whose love affair with the media merited his transfer. The matter was arbitrated in January, and a verdict is expected within days.
What is already apparent from the voluminous testimony is the astonishingly childish nature of the conflict -- how miscommunication allowed it to fester, how protocol ultimately took precedence over police work.
"Just a total waste of talent," mutters one detective who worked under Simmons. "He wrote the book when it comes to interviews and interrogation. Here's a guy capable of handling any case that comes into the department. And there he is in uniform. What a joke."
Simmons himself declined to be interviewed for this article. He did agree to provide access to the exhibits and transcripts of his arbitration hearing, but stressed that he was only doing so because his lawyer told him they were public record. He refused to turn over the material in person, opting instead to leave photocopies of the documents at the attorney's office. "It's only going to hurt me if I say anything," Simmons contends. "Just put 'No comment,' okay?"
Antonio Prieto and Lt. Randy Heller, one of his two chief assistants, also refused to comment, as did Denis Morales, a detective who was transferred out of Simmons's squad along with his boss. The half-dozen police officers who agreed to speak about Simmons's dispute did so only after assurances that their names would not be used. Any disclosure of their identities, they say, would amount to "career suicide."
Consequently, this story relies largely on testimony from the January arbitration hearing, and on personnel records.
Simmons joined the Metro-Dade force in 1973, and within two years was a detective in the homicide unit. By 1977 he had been promoted to sergeant. After spending most of the ensuing decade in homicide and sexual battery, he joined Juvenile Investigations in 1989. The bureau consists of three units: gangs, missing persons, and child exploitation. Simmons initially served in gangs, helping to shape the fledgling division. In early 1990, he moved to child exploitation, generally thought to be the most challenging unit.
Antonio Prieto, who had joined the department in 1971 and quickly ascended the ranks, was made commander of Juvenile Investigations in 1991. As personalities, he and Simmons posed a stark contrast.
Simmons was calm, nearly unflappable, and exuded a confidence that was often taken as arrogance, a sensibility that rubbed off on his squad. "We considered ourselves to be an elite unit, no doubt," observes one detective. "That came straight from Simmons." Meticulously organized and articulate, Simmons was often asked to speak at public events.
Prieto, on the other hand, was "more like one of the old guard," according to a former subordinate. "A tough guy. When he gave an order, he'd say, 'Hey, you don't like it -- fourteen days.' Meaning you did it or got your fourteen days' notice on the transfer. It got to be a joke around the bureau. If someone gave you shit, you'd say, 'Hey, you don't like it -- fourteen days!'"
Despite temperamental differences, Simmons continued to thrive under his new boss. His annual evaluations, written by Lieutenant Heller and approved by Prieto, portray a model supervisor with "an incredible ability to motivate his personnel." Heller's May 1993 write-up is typical: "As a result of Simmons's expertise, it is routine for representatives from various local and national organizations to contact him.... He never hesitates to seek additional responsibilities.... He constantly strives to find more productive methods to accomplish Unit and Bureau objectives." Simmons consistently earned "outstanding" ratings, the highest of five possible classifications.
Because they investigated cases of suspected child abuse, Simmons and his detectives were frequently sought out by the media, and it was over the issue of granting interviews that he and Prieto first clashed in April 1992.
Susan Candiotti, a television reporter from WCIX-TV (Channel 6), had asked Simmons if he would submit to an on-camera interview about a case of alleged child abuse. Simmons referred her to the media relations bureau, and the interview was refused, apparently on Prieto's order. But Candiotti appealed to Fred Taylor, director of the police department, who approved the interview.
Prieto was present at the taping, and Candiotti later recalled that he was not at all pleased. "He said that he was pissed and that this was not a media circus and that, you know, he didn't like this thing," the Channel 6 reporter stated at Simmons's January arbitration hearing. "I wanted to get feedback from him as to what the problem was. He just kind of mumbled, said a couple of bad words. He didn't have time for me and left."
Prieto was allegedly more direct with his subordinate. A few days after the interview, Simmons recalled, he was summoned to a closed-door meeting with his boss. "He told me he knew that I got along with the news media and had never encountered a problem with them in the past," Simmons recalled during the arbitration hearing. "[He said] it is only a matter of time before I was fucked like he has been fucked in the past by them."
Several months later Simmons gave another on-camera interview that was cleared through the media relations department. At arbitration Prieto said he wasn't informed of the second interview and felt he didn't have any control over Simmons. He had been scolded by his superiors about Simmons's interview with Candiotti, Prieto also claimed, though he admitted he never told Simmons about any flak; nor was the sergeant ever formally reprimanded for his conduct.
According to Simmons, Prieto's tirade about the media involved the coverage of a 1987 federal corruption probe that centered on Prieto's old boss, former chief Bobby Gonzalez. A lieutenant at the time, Prieto was never accused of any criminal wrongdoing but was forced to testify at Gonzalez's trial, which received a lot of press coverage. But his distaste for the media might well date back to January 20, 1982, the day he and 71 other aspiring police lieutenants (including, coincidentally, David Simmons) marched into the Mahi Shrine building to take a grueling, six-hour promotional exam. A month after the test, an anonymous note surfaced suggesting that cheating had occurred. An internal affairs investigation was launched, and a number of irregularities soon came to light.
Most striking was the similarity in answers on Prieto's test and that of a master sergeant named Robert Otero, who achieved the second-highest score on the test. Otero missed eighteen of 175 questions. Prieto, who earned the eighth-highest score, missed 24. Of their incorrect answers, seventeen were identical. Although the alphabetically arranged seating chart for the exam had called for Prieto and Otero to be separated by two tables, the men somehow wound up sitting at the same table. An analysis of Prieto's answer sheet revealed that "Prieto changed 34 of his answers to coincide with Otero's," according to the investigators' file.
The officers vehemently denied cheating. A statistician appeared to concur, determining that "no conclusive evidence of cheating was found." Six months after the exam acting department director Robert Dempsey issued a memo announcing an abrupt halt to the investigation. "There has been not one scintilla of hard evidence that there was cheating on the exam," he wrote. "Because I believe it to be in the best interests of the department and those who have a vital interest in the integrity of the promotional process, I have arbitrarily taken personal control of the file."
The local press, however, wasn't so delicate. The Miami Herald published numerous stories about the investigation.
Prieto was promoted to lieutenant that August.
Ironically, David Simmons, too, managed to evade scandal early in his career. In 1980 he was one of a dozen homicide detectives accused by two subordinates of using cocaine. Both his accusers had pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and were cooperating with prosecutors. When no other witnesses came forward, Internal Affairs cleared Simmons.
Those who reported to the Juvenile Investigations Bureau on October 14, 1993, were greeted by an unusual din: the whirring of the office shredder. Under normal circumstances, the shredder saw only occasional use. On this Thursday, though, gang unit detectives were stationed in front of the machine for hours, feeding documents into its mechanical maw.
A few days earlier Prieto had learned his bureau was slated for an administrative inspection. Hastily convening his command staff, he announced that he felt the inspection was his personal report card and said he wanted the bureau in tiptop shape.
But the bureau was, by most accounts, in disarray.
The main problem was a gargantuan backlog of case files. The paperwork, which dated back five years, had been shoved into boxes, which were stacked atop one another and now obscured most of one wall. Department rules called for such files to be reviewed annually, purged of any duplicate material, and sent to the records warehouse. With the inspectors due in a matter of days, Prieto was trying to clean up a mess that had been years in the making. To do so, he had gang unit detective Carlos Vazquez called in from home on an overtime basis to destroy files. "Vazquez joked that it was the easiest overtime he ever earned," recounts one eyewitness. "He and his buddies were so giddy from shredding they were snapping Polaroids of one another at work."
Simmons did not take part in the shredding. As a supervisor, and a compulsively neat one, he had taken pains to keep his squad's paperwork in order, and he ordered his people to steer clear of the proceedings. "We watched the rest of the bureau in this mass hysteria, with Prieto yelling and everything," recalls one detective. "But we had our shit together. So we didn't worry about it."
But in a way, Simmons would later contend, he was worried about it: Documents were being shredded when they should have been sent to storage; these were witness statements, original reports, photos of victims and suspects -- materials that could prove vital to later investigations. Officers, he alleged, also had been ordered to destroy equipment logs that revealed items which had been lost, and to replace them with new logs and bogus signout sheets that contained no notation of the lost equipment.
At the time, however, he said nothing. "I was faced with somewhat of a dilemma, weighing carefully the possible ramifications of reporting these acts," he explained during arbitration. "My primary concern was that the lowest ranking officers who were actually carrying out orders would receive the punishment for these acts, and not the superiors who ordered it."
Two weeks after the office cleanup, on October 27, 1993, Det. Denis Morales arrested a basketball coach at a community center who allegedly had sexually assaulted four children. Morales worked in Simmons's unit and was widely regarded as the sergeant's protege. Like Simmons, he earned glowing evaluations. And like Simmons, he was hypermeticulous, the type who tended to notice if the stapler on his desk had been moved a few centimeters. Around the unit, Morales was known as Spiffy II.
The day after the arrest reporters were clamoring for interviews, and Simmons and Morales were summoned for a meeting with Prieto, Heller, and Sgt. Robert Riker.
According to Prieto, Heller, and Riker, the powwow was short, and consisted of Prieto asking Morales whether he could be objective in an interview with the media. Morales, they recalled, stated he could not.
Simmons and Morales remembered the discussion somewhat differently. According to a reconstruction of the dialogue Simmons entered as an exhibit at his arbitration, Prieto opened the meeting by announcing, "Let me tell you guys at the start that I didn't want Morales talking to the media. I'm not going to get fucked like I did before, with someone giving them opinions and comments. You know how I feel about the media. I don't like cameras, and I don't like reporters. And I don't want any superstars in this bureau. This one time, and it's going to be the last time, I'll let you give the interview. But if you give one comment or opinion, I guarantee that you won't be working here any more."
At this point, Simmons and Morales recollected, they both said they wouldn't feel comfortable if Morales were to be interviewed.
Later that afternoon Prieto called Simmons and Morales back into his office. "I told them that they were going to be transferred. Just plain simple, just like that," Prieto said during the arbitration.
"The discussion revolved around Simmons's and Morales's inability to be objective in dealing with the media, which was contrary to the philosophy of Commander Prieto," recounted Heller, who was also present. "As a result, the commander stated that Simmons and Morales had been transferred."
Simmons's reconstruction depicted a more contentious episode: "It's obvious you both are unhappy here and I'm going to come right out and tell you that I'm uncomfortable with both of you," he remembered Prieto saying. "I don't like people who have personal agendas and are not team players."
Simmons also remembered asking Prieto to be specific, whereupon the commander allegedly snapped, "Where were you when the rest of us were running around going crazy before the inspection? I'll tell you where you were. You were in the cafeteria with Morales...drinking coffee for 37 minutes! ...Like I said, I'm uncomfortable with you guys. I don't trust either of you. You showed that you were not team players during our office crisis. There is nothing else to talk about. Find a home [outside the bureau]."
Simmons and Morales left Prieto's office shell-shocked. Both say they subsequently spoke with Heller, who assured them that the commander would calm down, and that his threat of a transfer would probably be rescinded. According to his own statement during arbitration, Heller told both men he would apprise them if the transfer became a reality. (Heller later contradicted himself on this point, insisting he never made the promise.)
Days later Prieto wrote a memo announcing that applications were being accepted for a sergeant "to fill any future vacancies within the child-exploitation unit."
On November 8, Simmons submitted a memo of his own to John Farrell, Prieto's supervisor, outlining his concerns about the alleged administrative wrongdoing that had taken place before the October inspection. He attached a binder filled with supporting documents. Simmons then delivered the same package to Internal Affairs.
Prieto sent out a second memo on November 10, this one announcing an "anticipated position vacancy."
Taking the cue, Morales arranged to be transferred to homicide. Simmons interviewed for a position in Internal Affairs in late December but was not selected. On January 2, he received written notice of his new assignment -- a uniform position at Northside, the same station where he'd served as a rookie patrolman 22 years earlier. Simmons's base pay remained the same, but his actual income took a nosedive, because he was no longer able to earn regular overtime pay, as he had as an investigator.
Sgt. Jeffrey Wander, the officer Prieto chose to take over leadership of the child-exploitation unit, had been a sergeant less than three years at the time of his promotion, and had a total of one year's experience as an investigator. His three most recent annual evaluations graded him as "satisfactory," in the middle of the department's five rating categories.
"Was the quality of our work negatively impacted? You're damn straight," fumes one of Simmons's former subordinates. "Simmons not only knew the answers, but if it came down to it, he'd go in and interview a suspect himself. And there wasn't anyone he couldn't get to cop out. No knock on [Wander], but the guy had never worked the kind of sensitive cases you get in child exploitation. To be honest, if I had any questions [even after the transfer], I called Simmons."
It isn't every day that a police sergeant with a by-the-book reputation files an internal affairs complaint against his commander. Consequently, Simmons's complaint was given special attention. Sgt. David Rehrig spent a total of 350 hours investigating the primary claims -- that original records were shredded, that equipment logs were dummied to cover up lost items, and that overtime pay was wrongly disbursed to accomplish these ends.
Most of the 46 people Rehrig interviewed denied the claims. No logs had been dummied, they asserted; only duplicate records had been shredded. The IA sergeant's conclusion: The complaint was much ado about nothing. Prieto had allocated 52 hours of overtime pay, but that was no crime.
Joe Centorino, the Dade State Attorney's Office prosecutor who supervised Rehrig's investigation, concurred. "There is no concrete evidence that any criminal statute was violated," Centorino noted in a close-out memo written last August. "[Simmons's] decision to file the complaint three weeks after the incident is an indication of the flimsiness of his accusation."
In dismissing Simmons's complaint, the investigators did disregard several key statements. Sgt. Thomas Murphy, for example, noted that he had seen photographs among the material being shredded. Det. Denis Morales said original copies of gang unit reports were also fed into the machine. Carlos Vazquez, who had been paid overtime to destroy records, said he did not specifically recall what he had shredded but believed it included confessions and reports from child-exploitation cases, photographs, and gang unit intelligence files -- all of which are required to be warehoused, according to state record retention statutes.
Though Sgt. Rafael Nazario, the bureau's records custodian, told Rehrig he had adhered to all record retention procedures, he wasn't so confident during Simmons's arbitration. When asked if any improper or illegal shredding could have occurred, Nazario responded, "Well, see, that would be hard to answer. I mean, there were files there that, old administrative files from 1989, and I didn't spot-check every one of them."
One other issue Rehrig seems to have ignored: Practically all his witnesses were subordinates of Prieto, the man Simmons had accused. And while the investigator took the trouble to consult the manufacturer of the shredding machine, he never ventured to the records center to see for himself the condition of the files that had been updated and stored there.
Would conducting such an audit have helped confirm Simmons's claims? "I suppose so," Joe Centorino observes. "But then again, the absence of something doesn't prove anything." The prosecutor adds that he has no second thoughts about his handling of the case: "The complaint came from an officer and we took it seriously. If anything, we spent too much time on it. There may have been administrative problems in that office, but there was no way we could prove a criminal case."
Given his passion for investigation, it is hardly surprising that Simmons should object to being stuck back on patrol. What is surprising is the manner in which the dispute was addressed.
Within days of his transfer Simmons filed a grievance alleging that he had not been given sufficient notice of his transfer, and that it had been ordered in lieu of discipline and also in retaliation for the internal affairs complaint he had lodged against Prieto. He requested that he be reassigned to an investigative unit.
For several weeks, the complaint made its way up the chain of command. When it arrived on the desk of John Farrell, Prieto's supervisor, the chief denied the grievance, asserting that Simmons had indeed been notified of the transfer more than fifteen days in advance.
"The primary issue outlined in the formal grievance remains unresolved," Simmons wrote back. "Specifically, the adverse action taken against [me] for reporting official misconduct to the proper authority." Following Metro's grievance procedure, Simmons requested a meeting with the police department's director, Fred Taylor. To judge from documents entered into evidence at the arbitration that followed, little was accomplished during that meeting. Taylor arranged for Simmons to be offered a position in the Economic Crimes Bureau, but the post was to be temporary, and primarily administrative. Simmons turned it down. "Since you have declined this position, there appears no further action the Department can take at this point to resolve your grievance," Taylor concluded.
The case went to arbitration in January. Carol Anderson, the assistant county attorney who represented Metro-Dade, attempted to portray Simmons as a renegade officer who had previously run afoul of his superiors. Her case, however, hinged on a single assertion: Simmons had expressed opinions to the media that Prieto found unacceptable.
Yet when he was called to testify, Prieto couldn't provide any examples of objectionable statements. Further, he insisted he had called the head of sexual battery to see if Simmons could be transferred there; when that officer was interviewed, she said she'd never heard from Prieto. He also asserted that he had not been the subject of an internal affairs complaint since 1973, apparently forgetting the 1982 cheating allegation.
Prieto's rationale for reassigning Simmons was also somewhat clouded, and implied a violation of Metro's rules regarding transfers, which are to be ordered "for reasons that will improve effectiveness and efficiency of the department," but not "in lieu of discipline," according to the police department's employment contract with the county. "It is my nature to talk to people rather than give discipline away," Prieto explained. "If I can talk to people and understand and make people understand, I thought it was for the benefit of the department. The transfer was much better than discipline."
Anderson characterizes the case in a similar manner. "Prieto was concerned that Simmons was trying to become a media star," she explains. "He felt Simmons was not operating the way he wanted the bureau to operate. Simmons had been following a similar course of calling his own shots for a number of years. The command staff felt he should go back to uniform. It was reviewed with Chief Farrell, and went all the way to Director Taylor. They felt it was best for Simmons to stay in uniform.
"At some point, he was offered a position as an administrative sergeant and he didn't want that. He wanted to be a detective-supervisor-type sergeant. That was even more offensive to the command staff," Anderson adds. "People aren't expected to pick and choose what kind of job they want. Simmons wouldn't accept the offer, and the department was not about to give him a detective-sergeant position."
In other words, it seems to have been decided that Simmons needed to be taught a lesson. Whether that lesson sticks is up to arbitrator Edward A. Pereles, who is expected to issue his ruling this week.
Antonio Prieto is still a bureau commander, though the Juvenile Investigations Bureau has been reorganized. The gang and child-exploitation units have been shuttled to the newly created Domestic Crimes Bureau. Juvenile Investigations now consists of missing persons and a recently formed habitual offender unit. Staffing has been cut in half.
Whatever Pereles rules, the Simmons saga remains draped in irony. "It was a case of stubbornness costing us a lot of time and money," observes Assistant County Attorney Anderson. "And I think it would be most helpful to have the public know this kind of thing goes on."
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.