Miami Cops' Lawsuits Claim Retaliation by Police Chief for Probing Corruption

Officers Brandon Lanier (pictured left) and Wanda Jean Baptiste claim that Miami Police Chief Manuel Morales (right) retaliated against them after they called him out for interfering in internal affairs investigations.
Officers Brandon Lanier (pictured left) and Wanda Jean Baptiste claim that Miami Police Chief Manuel Morales (right) retaliated against them after they called him out for interfering in internal affairs investigations. Photos via Twitter/Miami Police Department
Since their hiring in the mid-2000s, detective Wanda Jean Baptiste and Lieutenant Brandon Lanier rose through the ranks at the Miami Police Department (MPD), eventually taking on roles as internal affairs investigators. Both were tasked with probing wrongdoing among MPD employees; in recent years, Lanier was promoted to lead the internal affairs section.

But after coming forth with information about alleged corruption and misconduct among police officials, including MPD's top cop, the two officers claim they saw their careers and reputations destroyed.

In a pair of whistleblower lawsuits filed on April 3 against the City of Miami, Jean Baptiste and Lanier claim Chief Manuel Morales relentlessly retaliated against them after they called out internal-affairs meddling by Morales and two high-profile MPD officers. The department reprimanded and demoted Jean Baptiste and Lanier and even contacted the feds to "blacklist" the officers from employment, the lawsuits allege.

"It is both illegal and tragic that dedicated police officers have been demoted and had their careers destroyed because they refuse to go along with attempts to manipulate Internal Affairs investigations in the City of Miami," attorney Michael Pizzi wrote in a statement to New Times.

The City of Miami maintains that Jean Baptiste and Lanier's demotions were justified and that the pair are pursuing legal action out of frustration with the disciplinary measures.

"This is now the third time that Jean-Baptiste and Lanier have attempted to challenge the city’s proper disciplines. The city is confident that Jean-Baptiste and Lanier will fail to prove any wrongdoing, much like their failure to prove any wrongdoing in their other meritless challenges," the city said in a statement provided to New Times.

The lawsuits stem from a years-long saga, which began when ex-police chief Art Acevedo received an encrypted email from an anonymous sender alleging that MPD commander Nerly Papier had crashed a police vehicle while under the influence in April 2021 and called her husband, Deputy Chief Ronald Papier, to help cover up the accident. Ronald Papier allegedly contacted then-Capt. Javier Ortiz — known as MPD's most scandal-plagued cop — to have the vehicle towed under the pretense that it had been vandalized.

After investigating the couple, Jean Baptiste and Lanier concluded that pedestrians had to "jump out of the way" of Nerly Papier's vehicle during the incident. They also found that the Papiers' statements on the incident did not match up, and that Ronald Papier failed to recuse himself as a leader of the internal affairs section during the probe of the incident.
In one of his first major decisions as chief of police, Art Acevedo fired the Papiers from their respective roles as deputy chief and commander in May 2021.

Lanier was promoted from lieutenant to commander months later. But when Acevedo was fired in October 2021 and Chief Morales was sworn in, "everything changed for the worse," the lawsuits claim.

On the heels of Morales taking over the department, the Papiers filed a complaint over their firing with the Civilian Investigative Panel, alleging that the internal affairs probe exaggerated the circumstances surrounding the car crash. Ronald Papier also claimed MPD failed to inform him that he was the subject of an investigation.

The Papiers' grievances were forwarded to the internal affairs department. Then, in January 2022, the Papiers were reinstated to their former positions, where they remain today.

Last year, in the midst of controversy over the Papiers' reinstatement and the continued employment of Javier Ortiz, Lanier and Jean Baptiste sent scathing letters to state and local agencies, as well as city officials, alleging Morales was interfering with internal affairs probes.

“Morales has used his position to open investigations to target employees and influence the outcome of investigations,” Lanier wrote in a May 2022 letter to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Gov. Ron DeSantis, among others.

Not long after, in July 2022, the Miami Police Department issued reprimands against Jean Baptiste and Lanier. Both officers were demoted: Lanier was kicked down from commander to lieutenant while Jean Baptiste was demoted from internal affairs to patrol.

The lawsuits allege the department retaliated against Lanier and Jean Baptiste "for simply doing [their] jobs." Morales later publicly threatened to discipline them further in response to their testimony at a public whistleblower hearing — and he followed through on the threat when he slapped Lanier with a 240-hour suspension late last year, according to the lawsuits.

The city maintains that Jean Baptiste and Lanier were disciplined because they failed to inform Ronald Papier that he was the subject of an investigation. An October 2022 memo signed by Morales also accused Lanier of mismanaging internal affairs by not adhering to investigation deadlines and failing to route cases to the City of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel.
click to enlarge
Miami Police Department Deputy Chief Ronald Papier (left) and his wife, Cmdr. Nerly Papier
Photos via Twitter/MPD
Lanier and Jean Baptiste, who are currently seeking whistleblower status, remain in their demoted roles.

"The City of Miami has sent a message that Police Officers who do not follow the party line and permit improper interference in IA investigations will lose their careers," Pizzi says.

Both officers, who are Black, also allege that the city discriminated against them, denying them the right to use their paid attorney from the South Florida Police Benevolent Association, despite the city allegedly allowing the attorney to defend non-Black officers in the “exact same type of proceeding.”

"The fact that two black officers were specifically singled out and targeted is another concern," Pizzi says.

The lawsuits seek damages in excess of $1 million and a jury trial. 
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca

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