The Pros Have It
Tattoo is sitting in his patrol car under a tree, watching small groups of kids crawling to class as slowly as ants across Douglas MacArthur South High School's parklike campus. Seventeen acres of near-pastoral charm slapped into a lower-middle-class slice of Kendall Lakes West: "Mac South" is what the self-deprecating slackers call their place of higher learning. It's one of the prime sites where other Miami-Dade schools dump their problems. For many of the 300-odd students, it's the last stop before Juvie Justice, or a job at One-Day Autobody.
As the teenagers -- mostly boys, mostly from the county's poorer sections -- stroll by the school police car, some wave or nod; a few call out: "Hey, Hurley!" Nodding back is Ofcr. Charles Hurley, a compact 30-year-old with large vivid tattoos covering his muscular forearms like an extension of the dark blue uniform sleeves that cover his biceps. Mornings like these he makes a slow tour of the campus, touching base with security monitors, teachers, and administrators. "Is everything okay? No problems?" Hurley asks.
"Naw, no problems," responds security supervisor Joe Coats, from his golf-cart roost. Then he laughs, stretches his arms over the steering wheel, and says what everybody always says: "Not yet."
Hurley lets his foot slip the brake, and the white-and-blue cruiser slowly rolls on. He glances at the speedometer, under which a miniature, two-dimensional Dan Marino in full Dolphins regalia regards him from a protective plastic case. He smiles contentedly, a man whose major passions are his wife and daughter, his job, and grilling enormous slabs of meat in the parking lot of Pro Player Stadium every couple of weeks. As his car turns a corner, heading toward the workshop where some students learn an electrical trade, a lanky, towheaded boy points at Hurley in greeting. The car stops and the window rolls down. "How you doing?" he gently accuses. "Staying out of trouble?" The boy attempts to suggest he has been. "Yeah, you know, always," the student tries, with a sloppy shrug and grin. As Hurley moves on, another boy with wiry black hair calls to him. "Stay up,man! You know the code!" And he does know.
Later in the day Hurley will explain the curious popularity he enjoys, a wary respect the students accord him because even though he is a cop, he's not like the stuffed uniforms they may have encountered in the streets and already learned to distrust. He knows these kids, their turbulent family lives, their daily challenges ... As irritating as it is when he busts somebody for small-time drug deals, skipping school, or fighting, Hurley believes most of the students are relieved he's there every day, pushing back when they test the limits. The way he puts it is much simpler. "Kids like rules," he says, bespectacled brown eyes twinkling under a Marine-style haircut. "They like to feel safe -- even if they're the biggest thug."
At a Cuban restaurant around the corner, Hurley's almost constant stream of chatter turns to his own problems. He orders a large platter of vaca frita with all the fixings. Usually his wife makes him take a bag lunch, so this is a treat. The main thing on Hurley's mind is money, since during this time his union is at the end of a two-year battle with the school district over pay raises.
None of the 164 officers whose salaries depend on the outcome of that struggle know what to expect, and it's had an effect on morale. "The department is kind of in a holding pattern," Hurley muses. "It's like we're on a launching pad. If things come through, we'll take off."
Hurley is talking about more than just money, though right now that's the hot issue in the department. He's talking about Pete Cuccaro, the new chief of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police Department. Not new, exactly, since he was hired by the school board in March 2000, but new in that he is transforming the department. Hurley and more than a dozen other officers who spoke to New Times believe Cuccaro is turning their department around; they admit it had a long, often-deserved reputation for being unprofessional. "Day-care workers, baby sitters, campus cops," union negotiator Joe Puleo ticks off the labels that have been applied to the school police.
Less than two years ago, the school police was riddled with problems. The department's long-standing tradition of hiring and promoting officers with questionable qualifications had finally caught up with it. Then-Chief Vivian Monroe was at odds with a growing number of officers, who were outraged at her practice of promoting her friends and protecting her allies by meddling in police investigations. The State Attorney's Office and other police agencies also were concerned about the way investigations were conducted. Top school officials were embarrassed.
Then in early 2000 the school district brain trust hit upon an ingenious solution to this growing headache. They brought in a professional to run the place, retired county policeman Pete Cuccaro, a guy who once walked out of a consulting deal for the hit Eighties series Miami Vice because he didn't like the brutal way Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs were being portrayed. Under the guidance of this new chief, the school police has been given a second chance. Slowly the force has begun to transcend its former reputation. But not without growing pains. "I think the new chief had to learn a lot about the way things are done in Miami-Dade public schools that's different from Metro-Dade," notes school board member Manty Sabates Morse. "He was probably surprised."
Donald "Pete" Cuccaro was a skinny little Italian kid from Connecticut when he moved to Dade County in the early Sixties at the age of fourteen. He was just in time to experience the wave of Cuban immigrant children who flooded into the public schools in the first few years after Castro's revolution. The Palmetto High graduate grew up wanting to be a policeman, and that's just what he did, joining the Dade police force in 1971 as a beat cop.
Cuccaro spent 27 years as a county police officer. For years he was a media spokesman. In the summer of 1984, when executive producer Michael Mann sought to make the word vice synonymous with the Magic City, Cuccaro served as a technical advisor on the popular NBC show. Well, at least for the first couple of episodes. Then he resigned, protesting a script that depicted homicide detectives beating up suspects. "They promised me they wanted to portray the department realistically," he told the Miami Herald in 1984. "They didn't, and I can't ethically continue." A couple of months later, Cuccaro was reassigned to Metro-Dade's South District police station. He later headed the gang-activities unit and robbery-investigations bureau.
When long-time Metro-Dade director Fred Taylor retired in 1997, Cuccaro served as acting police chief until retiring in February 1998, and Carlos Alvarez became the current director. "He's a planner and a doer," Taylor deems Cuccaro. "The job of the police chief is to be able to merge doing the operation -- getting it done right -- and then having a little vision about how it can be done better and how to get there. Now I think that's what Pete is doing, developing a vision. I don't think [the school police] had [one] before."
Taylor is almost right. The problem with the school police was not a lack of vision but a vision different from that of a professional police force. Although a tiny, rudimentary version of the department was established by the school district in 1957, it was more of a security department, which simply coordinated the schools with local law-enforcement agencies and conducted background checks on employee applicants. In 1970 the school district's security-services department got a little bigger and began doing more personnel investigations and patrolling school properties at night to prevent burglaries.
A few years later, officers were occasionally patrolling a few schools during the day to reduce crime. In the Eighties the department, which had roughly 40 to 50 officers, called itself the Special Investigative Unit and gradually began to take on more traditional police duties. In the Nineties the unit was calling itself a police department and stationing an officer in every high school (and later in most middle schools). Today the school police has about 180 officers.
What didn't happen as the department grew both in size and responsibility was a corresponding evolution of leadership. "They didn't groom officers for leadership positions," asserts Sgt. Bruce Beard, a seventeen-year veteran of the school police. "People were selected based on the good ol' boy network and favoritism." Another problem was that the school police were still viewed by school district administrators -- nonpolice-mentality bureaucrats who oversaw them -- as merely the glorified security guards they'd once been.
This wasn't far from the truth in some cases. The school district would often hire uncertified officers because they were less expensive. For instance a rookie officer hired by the school system in the last couple of years would be paid about $26,000, nearly $10,000 less than other comparable police agencies pay. They would put him through cop school to get his certification, and that was about the end of formal training most would receive. Before New Times exposed this glaring error in 1997, the department also hired officers without requiring psychological screening; some had even failed psych tests at other departments. The officers could expect that the gaps between their incomes and those of cops at other agencies would only grow the longer they stayed -- hardly a recipe for building a great police force. So why do they stay? "You get to help real special kids," Hurley says. "That is flat out the reason I do this."
There was another reason the school police was so bad for so long: the bureaucrats. The superintendents, region administrators, and principals liked being able to largely direct the activities and investigations of the police, a bad tradition since 1957. Unlike other police departments, which typically report directly to the city manager or a mayor, the school police was separated by layers of paper-pushers answering to then-superintendent Roger Cuevas. And the department often got moved from one administrative division to another and was subject to the whims of whoever was in charge at the time. After Cuccaro was hired, Cuevas gave him a direct reporting line to the superintendent. "That was a large step in allowing us to professionalize the department," Cuccaro says.
Until then, when it came to employees accused of wrongdoing, the bureaucrats, not the police, would decide whether the matter would be pursued civilly or criminally. And time after time those decisions seemed driven by the friendships and political connections of the people involved, rather than the facts. By the mid-Nineties the State Attorney's Office and other police agencies were publicly expressing concerns that the disposition of potential crimes involving children were inappropriately being decided by paper-pushers rather than law-enforcement officials.
Vivian Monroe's three-year stint as chief (which ended when she "demoted" herself in January 2000) was similar to the careers of other school district officials who had been promoted beyond their level of competence. She had been with the department since the early Seventies and worked her way to assistant chief by 1996. But in November 1996 everything changed at the school district. That year was the first in which school board members were elected from geographic districts rather than countywide, which meant more black and Hispanic faces on the board; it also meant a fundamental shift in the power structure of the public schools.
A lot of bureaucrats who had ties to either a school board member or to Roger Cuevas, the new superintendent appointed by the board, were suddenly promoted. Board member Solomon Stinson, for example, is credited by many with having the largest single effect on personnel changes during this time. Before running for the board, Stinson had enjoyed a 38-year career in the school district, the last years as a powerful and influential deputy superintendent of school operations. He is said to be partially responsible for Monroe's promotion to become the first black and first female chief of the school police. (Neither Monroe nor Stinson returned calls seeking comment for this story.)
Unfortunately the revolution ended there. Monroe only helped cement the reputation of the school police as the stooge of the district's civilian Office of Professional Standards. OPS is the office that investigates employee misconduct and recommends disciplinary action. Concerns ran rampant among employees and state prosecutors that the police were letting OPS decide whether incidents involving employees or students would be handled criminally or administratively swept under the carpet. This had come to be common practice over time because the school district really had no practical independent check on its internal behavior. The perception of tainted investigations was not helped when, during part of Monroe's tenure, her husband, James Monroe, became an executive director at OPS.
New Times has documented some of the horror stories before (see "Flunk Out," July 17, 1997, and "Cop Out," March 9, 2000), which include several cases of employees school police officers tried to arrest, only to be stopped by Monroe. In one case in 1997, assistant principal Judith Hunter came staggering drunk to school, swore like a sailor, and kicked Sgt. Harold McKinney in the groin as he was attempting to escort her to a police car. A friend of Hunter came to the school and whisked her away. No charges were filed, and Monroe's husband in OPS ordered police to drop any investigation.
Similarly maintenance administrator Ray Davis put one of his workers, Ranis Ford, in a headlock during a disagreement in November 1999. He was arrested and taken to jail for booking, only to be rescued at the last minute by Monroe and "unarrested." Later the computer record of the incident was changed, making Davis the victim and Ford the perpetrator. This incident was the last straw for many officers, who joined the Fraternal Order of Police union that began to push for Monroe's removal. "We got a lot of people after that case," recalls FOP president Ian Moffett.
More disturbing were cases involving children. In 1997, then-Edison Middle School principal Ronald Major, who had previously been investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting a student, was allowed by OPS to quietly handle a similar allegation against a teacher. When the girl's mother became frustrated with a lack of action, she called school police, and a conscientious captain brought in the City of Miami's sexual-battery unit to investigate. The motivation for meddling in all these incidents, according to officers familiar with the cases, was either to protect a friend or high-ranking official, or to avoid a potentially embarrassing criminal investigation.
Monroe played the same game inside her department, which some officers say created or widened ethnic rifts within the school police. She promoted Stephana Clark, a lieutenant under investigation by school police internal affairs at the time for allegedly lying about a car accident, to a captain's position overseeing internal affairs. Also on Monroe's watch, several officers were investigated by state prosecutors for allegations including public-records violations, perjury and witness tampering, as well as charges involving sexual misconduct or misuse of office. Monroe's assistant chief, José "Pepe" Gonzalez, resigned earlier this year in a deal with state prosecutors that allowed him to quietly disappear from the school district and police work. In return the state agreed not to drag him into court for his alleged role in a 1987 plot to kill a witness associated with the notorious Miami River Cops case from the mid-Eighties (see "River of Sleaze," April 6, 2000, and "Confessions of a Former School District Cop," July 19, 2001).
Gonzalez maintained that the two-year investigation into his past more than a decade later was political payback from Monroe, who considered him a rival, and her boss Henry Fraind, the deputy superintendent. In a sworn statement on file at the State Attorney's Office, Gonzalez claimed that Fraind had asked him to wiretap the offices of Solomon Stinson and Roger Cuevas and had sneakily ordered police equipment for use in his car. At the time Gonzalez was both a rising star in the police department and a vivid symbol of the department's dirtiest little secrets.
This was the unenviable situation into which Pete Cuccaro walked in March 2000. Cuccaro was struck by how divided the department was, and by its almost nonexistent management structure. "When I came in, the department was paralyzed," he remembers. "It was divided, divided loyalties. The direction was determined by whoever wanted to take the initiative." Cuccaro describes the atmosphere then as "beleaguered." "I set out to instill confidence, to deal with issues, not personalities," he recalls. "I was there a month before I realized I was talking management 101 and they didn't understand."
Cuccaro, age 52, is an unimposing man of five feet eight inches, with a slightly stocky build and a broad, pleasant face. He is an intelligent, understated leader who consistently deflects all praise, preferring to credit his officers with most of the improvements the department has made in the past couple of years. "The talent was always there," he says. "They are very anxious to be professional and earn the respect they deserve." Even union agitators like him. Joe Puleo, a feisty negotiator for the statewide Fraternal Order of Police, has nothing but good things to say about the new chief. "It's been like night and day," the former New York cop comments. "Before you got Cuccaro in there, the place was being run by a bunch of knuckleheads. They were terrible."
Capt. John Hunkiar, head of the department's investigative unit, agrees with Cuccaro that the officers and the school system were eager for a new order. "There had to be change," Hunkiar concedes. "I think definitely the school system wanted to see a change." Last year Cuccaro appointed the young captain head of a new, centralized unit of 30 investigators housed in a stripped-out old school building in Miami's Brownsville neighborhood. In the past year, this group of detectives has developed a level of professionalism that has begun to be recognized by other police agencies, state prosecutors, and internal school district officials.
The detectives now run all investigations involving employees by public-corruption prosecutors before deciding whether the matter will be pursued criminally or civilly. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle praises Cuccaro for developing new procedures and a better relationship with her office. "Today we have fewer concerns about the potential of the school board police department failing to respond appropriately to a criminal matter involving a school employee," she notes. "If the changes continue to move in the direction they are moving now, there is no question that the end result will be a better department."
Another of Cuccaro's assets are his long-standing relationships with other local police agencies, and he has pushed the school police to develop mutually beneficial relationships with them. North Miami Beach Police Chief William Berger says he's pleased with the new training school police are getting and the initiative they are showing in coordinating the law-enforcement community to handle a Columbine-like incident if it ever happens here. He asserts that, in the past, the leadership of the school police seemed intent on keeping other police agencies at arm's length. "I see much more happening than ever before," Berger remarks. "Pete's well-respected. He's somebody I could get on the phone and talk with if there was a problem."
School police now have a much better handle on proper procedures for both police reports and investigations, thanks to training programs Cuccaro has implemented. "When it comes to a crime, nobody tells us how to proceed," declares Hunkiar. "In the past it was perceived that OPS would often dictate which route a case would go. There were often times when a region captain would not be informed of a parent's complaint until the parent, frustrated by the administrative process, would call us." Capt. Arnie Weatherington and Lt. Gerald Kitchell recently became the first in the department to graduate from the prestigious Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville.
Cuccaro also asked other police agencies to review old internal-affairs cases the school police had closed to determine why some of them were not handled properly. "Most of the time it came down to training," Cuccaro says. Some of the longer-serving officers were hired back when a much smaller school police force only investigated burglaries at schools and helped OPS with employee investigations. They didn't even fill out uniform crime reports, instead calling another local police agency for that. Now they work all cases, except sexual battery and homicides. "It's amazing the difference it makes when you have someone who knows what they are doing and turns on the lights," confides Officer Hurley.
Cuccaro has additionally looked to make a physical statement that the school police department is a professional agency with a new attitude. New uniforms (blue instead of brown) and a new design logo for the blue-and-white car colors make that statement, as does his appointment of Carlos Fernandez as the department's first public information officer. Not that it hasn't been an uphill battle at times to convince some of the cops and long-time bureaucrats in the system that changes are for the best. "There are still glitches," Hunkiar admits. "People are used to things the way they were." Cuccaro says half his job is educating administration. Whether OPS bureaucrats are pleased with the new arrangement isn't clear. OPS assistant superintendent Joyce Annunziata declined to comment on the subject or on anything having to do with the school police. "I was told we don't have a comment," a subordinate in her department offered apologetically.
Four of the nine school board members (all the women) who experienced the ups and downs of the department under the previous chief praise Cuccaro for attempting to usher in a new era of professionalism. (School board members Michael Krop, Solomon Stinson, and Robert Ingram did not, as usual, return phone calls seeking comment. New board members Frank Cobo and Frank Bolaños were not in office during the previous regime.) Board member Betsy Kaplan describes Cuccaro as businesslike and less overtly political than his predecessors. "He does what he's supposed to, but he doesn't show off," she observes. "You don't see him around escorting someone who probably doesn't need an escort. He runs a tight ship."
Cuevas, before he was fired by the board for moving too slowly to make managerial reforms, said he considered the school police a model for changes he might make in other district offices. "This is an example of a department where we brought in an expert and he has made significant improvements," he cooed. "It could impact other departments most definitely."
Cuccaro does play the political game when necessary. Vivian Monroe, who still has powerful allies, continues to work with the school police. Through annual raises she earns more than she made as chief of police (about $89,000), despite having since been demoted from overseeing six investigators to being the commander of Youth Crime Watch. Cuccaro defends Monroe and the position he created for her. "Quite frankly, if she wasn't earning it, I would have cut her," he affirms. "She's good at it, and I think she enjoys the job more." The new job has her acting as liaison between county youth crime and the school police. She may not have been suited for chief of police, he allows, but she is still a valuable resource to the department. "Poor Vivian," Cuccaro says with a head shake. "She became the poster girl for everything that was wrong, and it wasn't always her fault. She didn't always get the support she needed."
Another aspect of Cuccaro's job is dealing with school board members. Cuccaro says they've have been "very supportive" of him and the department. That support apparently doesn't come without strings, as evidenced by an exchange New Times witnessed. At a meeting September 4 between the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and the school board, board member Robert Ingram took offense at negative comments made by some state representatives about the embarrassing way the board was letting then-superintendent Roger Cuevas and his underlings run the district. The personification of sanctimony in a flashy suit, Ingram pointed out that the board's role is to set policy for the superintendent to carry out. He said individual board members weren't supposed to interfere with management by asking deputies and principals and such to carry out their wishes.
After the meeting, as New Times waited for an elevator to make it up to the ninth floor, Ingram cornered Cuccaro in the hall a few yards away. After exchanging pleasantries the bulky ex-police chief and ex-mayor of Opa-locka got to his point. Without the slightest hint of irony, Ingram reminded Cuccaro that the daughter of an old police buddy of his was seeking a job with the department. He mentioned how far back he goes with this woman's father, her puzzlement at not getting the job when she first applied, and expressed his hope that Cuccaro would be able to help sort things out. "I'll look into it," a poker-faced Cuccaro nodded politely, before quickly turning away.
The steps the school police department has taken thus far are encouraging but only the beginning of a long journey toward redemption. "This a five-year plan," Cuccaro notes. "The real measure is going to be year two." He acknowledges that one of his biggest challenges was the low pay scale of the officers that regularly encourages the best and brightest to jump to another agency after he's trained them.
But in November the school board and the police union finally came to an agreement. The starting pay for an officer rose from $26,000 to $30,000, and senior-level officers making $45,000 are now making $53,000. The cops still think they are underpaid, but they believe this is the most tangible indication that the school system does want a real police department. "They stepped up and realized you guys are worth it," union prez Ian Moffett told union members who voted to approve the contract in November.
Cuccaro's main goal for this year is to stabilize the workforce, which he hopes the resolution of the salary issue will help him do. "I want this organization to be the one that everybody leaves all these other organizations for, because the pay is good and we are making a difference with kids."
He also wants to get the school cops more involved in the curriculum at schools, such as in driver's education. Another goal is to better train the security monitors at all the schools to bring their skills comparable to what professional security-guard companies would require.
Ultimately Cuccaro's mission is to train his replacement. He's building the foundation for that now. "The idea that you're just campus cops, that's evaporated over the last year. I'll be ready to leave when I know that the next guy will come from within."
"I want to be part of a professional organization," Officer Hurley says. "When you wear your uniform, you want to be respected. I think the other police agencies are recognizing us and [the school district] is too. It's a good feeling."
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.
- Baseball Player's Former Assistant Sold His $167K Boat Behind His Back in Opa-locka
- Goat Blood-Drinking Senate Candidate Tried to Get Miley Cyrus' Endorsement
- Poll: Floridians Really Don't Want Guns on Campuses