No Holds Barred

Frank Dennis, former denizen of Dade's jails, doesn't inspire much pity, what with convictions for beating up his girlfriend and attacking a police officer. In the words of one prosecutor, "It would be difficult to find a more unsympathetic victim than Frank Dennis."

But when a half-dozen male corrections officers beat him bloody on the morning of August 21, 1994, it was more than six female colleagues could stomach. One of the women tried to intervene and was shoved into the wall. Dennis grabbed her leg and begged for mercy. Things got uglier. The men dragged Dennis into a back room where other guards heard screaming. The beating continued even after Dennis was taken to the jail's clinic, where his head was rammed into a wall.

Dennis, 24 years old at the time and beginning a sentence for aggravated assault, was bruised all over his body and cut seriously under his right eye. Before the prisoner lost a tooth in the scuffle, he bit one of the officers, Daniel Arocho, who required medical treatment. Dennis needed several stitches.

The Corrections and Rehabilitation Department responded to this crisis with all the speed of the Titanic pulling a U-turn; the investigation was closed only this past March, three and a half years after the fact. In April the county's Independent Review Panel, made up of civilian overseers, questioned the handling of the affair. The case exposed problems of brutality, investigative delay, and ethnic tension among officers. Both Dennis and the female officers are black; the guards who kicked and punched Dennis are Hispanic. In a prison system already reeling from scandal, a disturbing picture of poor oversight and internal bickering emerged.

The first part of the investigation, done by the department's internal affairs investigators, took nearly three years. The conclusion: The officers used excessive force. Another year went by before Corrections and Rehabilitation director Donald Manning meted out punishment: ten-day suspensions for officers Arocho, Robert Dossat, and Victor Rodriguez and a fifteen-day suspension for Manuel Diaz. Manning dismissed the charges against Curtis Wright; Jorge Rodriguez resigned in 1995, so he was not disciplined.

Dennis was accused of four counts of battery against a police officer. The charges were dropped a month later.

The department's efforts didn't satisfy the IRP, whose executive director Eduardo Diaz says he is concerned about the department's apparent "foot dragging." In April the IRP, which has no enforcement powers, recommended expanding the investigation to include two sergeants on duty during the beating. The panel also suggested a new policy to ensure "timely discipline for officer misconduct" and requested that Manning explain why he cleared Wright when investigators had implicated the guard. (Manning says there wasn't enough proof to sustain the charges).

"The department took forever to get to the bottom of the investigation," remarks Sgt. Walter Clark, president of the Organization of Minority Corrections Officers (OMCO), which represents mostly black officers. Referring to the black officers who reported the beating, he says, "These officers broke the code of silence and became victims."

Indeed, for the black women officers the long wait meant harassment at work. The officer who intervened in the scuffle, Sara Bellamy-Walker, received anonymous notes such as this one: "Die, Nigger." She transferred from the Pretrial Detention Center, where the beating took place, and began counseling, according to colleagues. Several others received death threats. All the women still work in the corrections department.

"No way are we satisfied with the length of time this took and the punishment the officers received," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). Wilcox compared Dennis's beating to that of Rodney King in Los Angeles. "The county stretched this out in the hopes people would forget it."

The Dennis beating occurred during the final days of director Charles Felton's embattled tenure. Felton was replaced by Manning amid inquiries into departmental mismanagement and his use of county money for personal purchases. (He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing). It also came during a bitter feud between employee advocacy groups, OMCO and the Hispanic Association of Corrections Officers (the subject of the March 21, 1996, New Times cover story "Jailhouse Rumble"). At the time, both groups were jockeying to influence future hiring practices.

The Dade State Attorney's office looked into the beating and decided not to prosecute the officers, believing it would be too tough to get a jury to sympathize with Dennis.

Manning, who took office in the fall of 1995, a year after Dennis's altercation with the guards, promises reform. He says he is expanding the investigation to include the sergeants. "There is an administrative process that sometimes takes longer than we would like," he says. "We don't want to make any excuses, and this opportunity has allowed us to review that process."

Manning is also in the process of beefing up the internal affairs staff by replacing inexperienced personnel and adding four new investigators. Currently ten officers must deal with a backlog of about 200 cases. The staff is also receiving new equipment, new offices, and more training. Manning hopes to reduce the caseload by more than 30 percent. "We're streamlining the process," he says. In the future, he declares, officers will be disciplined more quickly.

Dennis was freed a year ago on conditional release. He couldn't be reached for comment, but he apparently learned something from his experience in the Pretrial Detention Center. He was transferred to state prison after the beating, where he had only two disciplinary reports, one for disrespecting an officer and another for possession of stolen property. One state prison official termed his record "excellent. A very good record for the amount of time he served.


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