Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century

Even back in 1921, Miami Beach police had their share of scandalous headlines.
Even back in 1921, Miami Beach police had their share of scandalous headlines.
photo courtesy the Miami Beach Digital Archives

It's been a rough month for the Miami Beach Police Department. First came video of a detective punching a handcuffed woman in the face, followed closely by a press conference announcing that more than a dozen officers had sent or received boatloads of racist and pornographic emails.

But don't be fooled into thinking scandals in SoBe are a new phenomenon for the local cops. In fact, Miami Beach's police department has been enmeshed in one scandal after another almost continuously since the 7 square-mile city was incorporated 100 years ago.

Everyone remembers the more recent scandals — from the Beach cop who took a booze-fueled joyride on his department-issued ATV that seriously injured two tourists to the deadly 2011 Memorial Day Weekend shootout when twelve officers fired more than 100 rounds at a man, killing him and wounding four bystanders. 

But many older scandals have faded with the decades. Let's hit the highlight reel:

Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century
via Miami Daily News archives

Dec. 2, 1925 - When Damon Lewis became Miami Beach's police chief in Sept. 1925, rumors flew that he had a shady past. The rumors were confirmed a few months later when he was found guilty at a trial in Kansas City of running a dope ring. Apparently they didn't do background checks back then which explains why Lewis was hired as police chief despite the fact he'd been arrested in Oklahoma two years before becoming one of the Beach's first police chiefs.

Jan. 6, 1940 - FBI director J. Edgar Hoover charges that "half a dozen or more" members of the Miami Beach police department have criminal records.

March 17, 1950 - Miami police respond to the home of Miami Beach cop Winfield "Windy" Wells. Seems "Windy" got himself all liquored up and had chased his "scantily-clad" wife out of their home. When Miami cops showed up, a heavily-armed Wells stole one of their police cars and raced around Miami broadcasting threats over the two-way radio. He was caught and fired a few days later.

Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century
via Miami News archives

Aug. 18, 1950 - The Kefauver Committee investigation into organized crime issues a report that says, in part, "The S & G [Gambling] Syndicate operated with the protection of the Miami Beach Police Department and of the Dade County sheriff, and apparently under cover of a complacent city council, at least one of whose members was proven to have had profitable financial dealings with syndicate members."

Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century
via Miami Daily News archives

Oct. 9, 1952 - Billy Williams, a 23-year-old Miami Beach officer, shoots fellow officer Robert Kohler "and a pretty waitress as the climax to a drunken brawl" at the woman's South Beach apartment the Miami Daily News reports. Williams is captured in Hialeah where he was sleeping off the effects of a night of drinking in a rented car.

April 21, 1953 - Gus Armstong, a Beach detective with 23 years on the force, is arrested for his part in the hold-up of the Atlantic Towers Hotel at 42nd Street and Collins that ended with a gun battle. On the same day Armstrong is arrested, Miami Beach police chief Albert Simpson is told by city leaders to either quit, or be fired. Miami Beach mayor D. Lee Powell tells reporters, "Morale in the department is low. The police operation is not too efficient."

Aug. 18, 1953 - A week after saying he would fight efforts to dismiss him, Miami Beach police chief Floyd Truscott — who vowed to reform the department — resigns after just six weeks on the job.

Dec. 10, 1953 - Former Miami Beach detective Gus Armstrong is sentenced to five years in prison for the robbery of the Miami Beach hotel.

Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century
via Miami Herald archives

Dec. 30, 1953 - Beach police chief Romeo Shepard accuses one of his top detectives, Charles Pierce, of taking a bribe to destroy evidence in a high-profile murder case. About a month later, a grand jury indicts Pierce and another detective of taking "unauthorized compensation." Pierce is eventually acquitted of the charges. Re-instated to his job, he immediately retires.

May 11, 1954: The Dade County Grand Jury issues a report charging that "a vice ring with an annual take of $500,000 a season is being operated with impunity on Miami Beach under a call girl system."

The Miami Daily News says the grand jury blames a "liberal policy of law enforcement' for allowing rackets to thrive on the Beach.

"Officers who may have formed a habit of accepting awards...during the liberal gambling and horsebooking days...may find it difficult to change their habits and mental attitudes toward such dealings," the grand jury says.

June 30, 1957 - Romeo Shepard has been Miami Beach's police chief for just under four years. A story in the Miami Daily News on Shepard's likely dismissal by the city council says, "Miami Beach police chiefs, like Cuban presidents, don't get to bow out gracefully."

The News story says that when Shepard assumed command of the department in 1953, he announced "the law would be enforced to the letter and the Beach was going to have a force of which it could be proud." The News story then adds, parenthetically, "Miami Beach police chiefs said this all during the period when the S&G [gambling] Syndicate was operating as openly as the Salvation Army."

Nov. 8, 1957 - The Dade County Grand Jury ends a 5-month investigation into Miami Beach corruption by issuing a three and half page report.

The Miami News notes that the report is a recital of past problems with the Beach police force: Police officials have no faith in their subordinates, and rank and file officers have little faith in the honesty of their superiors. The paper also points out that morale is at "a low ebb."

Oct. 22, 1965 - Dade state attorney Richard Gerstein investigates charges that Miami Beach police officers altered an accident report after the Miami Beach city manager was involved in a minor hit-and-run crash.

Spectacular Scandals Have Plagued Miami Beach Police For a Century
via Miami News archives

Aug. 30, 1976 - The Miami News reports that a half-dozen or more Miami Beach cops "are targets of an expanding probe by the State Attorney's office into alleged looting at crime scenes over a period of years." The probe originally began as an investigation into the alleged beating of a robbery suspect by Beach cops.

The News reported that investigators were looking at certain officers who "habitually arrived at the scene of 'DOA' (dead on arrival) cases to search for [the deceased's] valuables."

May 23, 1977 - Miami Beach officers Robert Granger and Noel Chandler decide to supplement their meager police salaries by burglarizing Picciolo's, a popular South Beach restaurant. One goes inside and cracks the restaurant's safe and steals more than $5,000, while his partner stands lookout. They communicate with each other using walkie-talkies. Nearby a ham radio buff hears their conversations and records them. They 're busted and convicted of burglary and sentenced to prison.

July 13, 1997 - The Miami Herald begins publishing a series entitled "Collars for Dollars," which details the results of an eight-month investigation into police abuse of the overtime system.

From the Herald story:

"It works like this: Police list each other as witnesses in drunk driving and misdemeanor cases even if they did little or no police work. Then they all get to go to court, where they make overtime they don't deserve."
"To be honest with you, this is a game with the officers,'' said Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto. ``If they can get on that DUI train, they will do it.''
"There was a bunch of them. I couldn't count how many,'' said Kent Barding, a Pompano Beach man arrested by eight cops for drunk driving in Miami Beach in 1995. ``One officer gave me the sobriety test. All the rest were just standing around talking and doing what-not.''
"In DUI cases, Miami Beach had the worst record. The Beach needed more officers than the other departments to make DUI arrests, listing five or more Beach officers in 45 percent of its DUI cases, compared with 35 percent for Miami and 32 percent for Metro-Dade."

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