To Serve and Protect
These are rough days for the City of Miami's police department. The Elian Gonzalez affair cost them a chief and a major. The chief, William O'Brien, resigned in disgust after Miami Mayor Joe Carollo tried to have him fired for not alerting him in advance to the INS raid on Elian's Miami home. The major, John Brooks, suffered the misfortune of being photographed in one of the INS vans during the raid and knew his career in Miami was dead.
The department has been dogged by allegations of brutality for its response to the tumultuous street demonstrations that followed the raid. And another major, Juan Garcia, was suspended last week after approaching an undercover female officer posing as a prostitute along Biscayne Boulevard.
Also last week six police officers were suspended as part of the department's ongoing investigation into a Coconut Grove shooting three years ago in which an unarmed homeless man was shot in the leg. The suspended officers are suspected of being part of a coverup following the shooting, a coverup that included planting a throw-down gun on the scene so officers could claim the shooting was done in self-defense. That shooting has slowly unraveled. One officer already has pleaded guilty and others are awaiting trial.
In fact the Coconut Grove shooting remains an ongoing source of embarrassment. Amazingly even though it is one of the most sensitive investigations facing the department, New Times has learned that an entire box of files from the case recently was lost by the homicide unit. Forty-three files -- including statements by witnesses, lie detector tests, and a videotape of the crime scene -- were somehow misplaced.
Is there something nefarious surrounding the missing files? Probably not. The State Attorney's Office maintains a duplicate set of files on the case, and department officials say all the missing documents from the homicide unit will eventually be replaced.
So how does a police department lose an entire box of sensitive files?
That's not entirely clear. Homicide unit offices recently underwent renovations, and for a time, it appears, all the files involving the Coconut Grove shooting -- approximately three boxes' worth -- were stacked in a hallway near a coffee machine. Anyone in the department could have strolled by and picked up one of them as a souvenir.
The lead detective on the case believes he may have mistakenly taken one of the boxes home, thinking it contained personal notes and other material unrelated to the Grove case. He's not sure, however. But if he did take it home, it's possible the box was later thrown out with the trash.
At this point it almost doesn't matter. The lost files merely become a symbol of the department's failure to adequately tend to its own affairs. And the Coconut Grove shooting looms as a symptom of a larger, more dangerous problem facing the department.
The city recently settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $2.5 million after the department's SWAT team killed a 73-year-old man as it attempted to execute a search warrant in 1996. The family of the man sued the city, and rather than fight the case at trial, the city settled. The city's own attorneys didn't believe claims by members of the SWAT team that they knocked on the front door, identified themselves, and were greeted with gunfire before shredding the Overtown apartment with 122 bullets.
Even more damaging, the city's attorneys were afraid a trial would expose other misdeeds by the Miami Police Department, including the Coconut Grove case and the 1995 killing of two teenagers. Derek Wiltshire and Antonio Young were each shot in the back following a police chase onto the on-ramp of I-395 in downtown Miami. The nineteen-year-olds, along with two other men, had committed a smash-and-grab robbery against a pair of Ecuadorian tourists. As the thieves tried to make their escape, a team of plainclothes detectives who had staked out the area descended on them.
Several of the officers involved in the Coconut Grove case were present at the I-395 shooting. Although all the officers involved in the latter incident were cleared through both an internal review and by a judge through a process known as a coroner's inquest, the shooting stinks and everyone knows it. The police justified killing Wiltshire and Young by claiming the two black teens were armed, noting that a pair of handguns were found near their bodies.
Strangely these handguns had no fingerprints on them. One of them wasn't even loaded, while the other was loaded with the wrong kind of ammunition and therefore wouldn't fire. The original investigations by the police department and the State Attorney's Office into the I-395 killings were a joke. But where is the outrage?
Don't look to Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. His anger at Chief O'Brien had to do with a six-year-old child, not a deeply troubled department. And why haven't city commissioners recognized that their police officers seem to be a wee bit trigger happy, especially around black folks?
The I-395 case is now facing renewed scrutiny. In addition to the SAO, which botched the investigation initially, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office are reviewing it. Sources tell me the feds are hoping to build a major civil-rights case against members of the department, with the murders of Wiltshire and Young being at the center.
As for the saga of the missing files, department officials claim such a mistake will not be repeated. Capt. David Rivero, deputy commander of the criminal investigations section, wrote in a June 16 memo to Chief Raul Martinez: This will never happen again.... Any files that are highly sensitive in nature will now be stored in the internal-affairs vault.
Gee, I feel safer already.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.