Longform

Miami Beach cops are paid up to $225K and face lawsuits galore

Miami Beach Police Officer Manuel Chorens has a round, fleshy face and an ample belly stretching the front of his blue uniform. His hair is streaked with white; his jet-black eyebrows are prominent over a flat nose.

Maybe he has pulled you over. Maybe you have passed him at CVS, where until recently he worked late-night shifts. You probably don't remember him.

But Chorens has secrets. For one, he's rich. In 2008, he pulled in $175,651.84.

Also, he's a crook.

In August 2008 at the Lincoln Road CVS — a drugstore blocks from the beach where hordes of tourists buy flip-flops and sunscreen — managers noticed goods disappearing from the shelves. They began watching the 14-year veteran cop. Soon they saw Chorens, who had been paid tens of thousands of dollars to protect their store, filling plastic CVS bags and stashing them in the security room in back. More than $5,000 worth of stuff went missing.

A CVS investigator decided to dig a little deeper. He noted the time each night Chorens showed up for his shift and when he clocked out. The hours didn't add up.

So someone from the store called internal affairs investigators, who poked around some more.

Sure enough, they found Chorens was blatantly cheating CVS. Night after night, he'd arrive around 8 p.m. and stay until 10 or 11. Sometimes he didn't even show up. On his pay sheets, though, he claimed six or seven hours at the drugstore.

Though internal investigators found video footage of Chorens stuffing bags and taking them home, they exonerated him of theft charges.

But this past September, Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega quietly suspended Chorens for 30 days for falsifying his hours.

Noriega's force has more secrets. A Miami New Times investigation has found that 200 officers — 54 percent of the 367 nonexecutive cops — made six figures last year. One of them raked in almost $214,000, more than the chief or the Beach's mayor. A sergeant earned just under $230,000 a few years ago; that's about equal to Vice President Joe Biden's annual salary.

It gets worse. The Beach force, which patrols an idyllic strip of sand relatively free of blight and gang violence, is not only the best paid in the region but also among the most troubled. Some examples:

• Officer Richard Anastasi, who earned $146,223.46 in 2009 before retiring in December, was charged last week with kidnapping a man and torturing him with threats of violence to try to extort $100,000.

• Officer Eric Dominguez, who pulled in $128,853 last year, nearly killed four motorcyclists while he was driving a city-owned car and abused sick time.

• Sgt. Jerome Berrian, who recently made $225,065 in one year, was accused of domestic violence and reprimanded for sleeping on the job.

• Officer Eliut Hazzi, who earned $108,371, has been accused of harassing gay men and abusing a shop owner on South Beach.

• Two other top earners — Sgt. Steven Feldman ($190,655.38) and Officer John Pereira ($133,842.85) — repeatedly harassed a pair of Arab officers, according to a lawsuit and an internal complaint.

The department also faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that officers systematically abused gay men near Flamingo Park. Another civil suit alleges top brass irresponsibly covered for a drug-addled officer who killed two men in four days. And a third accuses leaders of discriminating against an Arab-American reserve officer.

Many Beach cops, of course, earn their money working long, honest hours keeping the peace among SoBe's sweaty crowds of drunken visitors. Few other districts in America balloon from 80,000 workday residents to nearly 300,000 revelers on weekends, police leaders point out. The force is understaffed by a few dozen cops, they say, which leads to at least six weeks of forced overtime annually for most officers.

"We're underappreciated," says Sgt. Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. "There's no other force in the country that deals with the influx of tourists every single weekend that we have."

Adds Assistant Chief Raymond Martinez: "[Our] salaries are consistent with other large agencies in the South Florida area."

There's little question, however, that the combination of big money and little oversight is thinning Beach residents' wallets and risking their safety. Officers working massive overtime have fallen asleep in patrol cars and made life-threatening mistakes. And unless city leaders, who for decades have caved to powerful unions' demands, can rein in police pensions, each and every homeowner in Miami Beach could be looking at more than $450 in new taxes next year to help fill a $30 million budget gap.

"I certainly didn't realize our police officers were making so much money," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower says. "Most people are in a state of mind right now where they [will probably] think those kinds of salaries are just out of control."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink