Longform

Baghdad West

Page 4 of 7

In 1968, the year before he was born, Rojas's father took a job as a patrolman in Opa-locka. (He left in 1972 to work for the Broward County Sheriff's Office.)

Rojas Jr. didn't know much about the town as a child. When he enrolled at Hialeah/Miami Lakes Senior High, he came to know Opa-locka as the place people went to buy weed.

Since joining the department in 1994, he has witnessed the comings and goings of nine Opa-locka Police chiefs. He has been fired three times: once for taking a weekend in Cancun without leave; once without nominal cause (Rojas cites his testimony on behalf of two fellow officers during an arbitration); and again during a layoff.

He managed to get rehired every time, thanks to his impressive record and shrewd politicking. But like most cops in Opa-locka, Rojas seems more at ease amid the constant automatic weapon fire of the city's mean streets than within the police station walls.

In 2002 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nearly shut the ailing department down for being noncompliant in 80 percent of FDLE's professional standards. State investigators found the department lacking in (among other things) basic equipment, manpower, and fundamental organization.

Most cops were working without body armor, sirens, or vehicle radios, according to the report. While per capita crime rates were nearing the highest in the United States, officers took home the lowest pay in the county.

Commendations and criminal investigations were equally scarce. Many cops nominally in charge of subdepartments (i.e. traffic) were not aware of their titles — to say nothing of their responsibilities.

A former indoor shooting range had been turned into the evidence depot and piled, willy-nilly, with aging drugs, guns, and weapons with no ostensible order or system for keeping track. In 2003 two senior cops were prosecuted for selling the stuff back to criminals.

At times, according to the report, as many as eight calls for service were put on hold due to a lack of officers: 34 patrolled a city of more than 15,000 people, down from 54 in 1996. The report cited one particularly troubling evening, May 18, 2002, when one cop and his supervisor were left to handle "a homicide and barricaded hostage situation" — alone.

A 2004 followup found little improvement. A pair of grant-funded detectives struggled to tackle 60 cases a week; they had almost no investigative training. Officers were burning out. The five reserve cops Opa-locka hired failed to pass their probationary period. "The recruitment function is still nonexistent," the report stated.

In 2005 James Wright, an ambitious lieutenant from the Miami-Dade Police department, took over as Opa-locka's Police chief. Wright's was the first police chief contract to promise such a high degree of job security: a five-year guaranteed payout (whether the town dumps him or not). Detractors outraged by his juicy contract photocopied and distributed it throughout the city as a kind of effigy: his $98,500-a-year salary, take-home SUV, and Blackberry did not go over well with entrenched officers, many of whom regard him as an occupying force.

In a sense, he is. Wright is the first chief in the city's history to be brought in from outside the department.

Since his arrival he has tackled the department from the top down. After Wright took over, three administrative officers retired and a former chief, one lieutenant, and five officers resigned. He has demoted four lieutenants to beat cops and is openly waging war with the city manager, Jannie Beverly, who hired him.

He regards his mission of professionalizing OLPD with a humorless severity.

"I envision Opa-locka as a jewel in the crown of Miami-Dade County," he said, dressed in an immaculately pressed uniform and patent leather shoes. To the chagrin of Opa-locka's veteran cops, that vision did not include many of them. He has staffed vacant positions with people from outside the agency. His most recent officer hire, a female lieutenant, was brought down from Connecticut.

"I'm still not done," Wright said of his housecleaning, as he sat behind the desk in his white-carpeted office. A matching white Greek Revival couch sits against the far wall. Flanked by busts of Roman soldiers, copies of The 48 Laws of Power and Sun Tzu's Art of War are at arm's length.


t the geographical heart of Opa-locka — not one block away from city hall — a concrete monstrosity known as "the water tower" juts out of the skyline as a glaring symbol of the town's central dysfunction.

The derelict industrial facility is Rojas's white whale. He has railed about it being a city-owned haven for junkies and fugitives for the duration of his career, he says. Nothing has ever been done about it.

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Calvin Godfrey