Travail to the Chief

On Monday morning, August 27, 2001, Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez greeted three visitors: retired FBI agent Virgil Young from Tennessee, Austin Police Department Commander Robert Gross from Texas, and Albuquerque PD Lt. Steve Nix of New Mexico.

If the chief wasn't nervous, he should have been. These men held in their hands his department's reputation -- at least among his peers. They were assessors for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), a highly respected organization that evaluates police departments nationwide. Those that meet CALEA's rigorous standards become part of an elite group. Of 25,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, only about 500 have passed muster. It's a big deal, and it comes with payoffs. Insurance rates go down. Juries tend to trust departments that meet tough national standards.

The Miami Police Department has been a CALEA-certified agency since 1995. Young, Gross, and Nix were in town for the mandatory three-year reassessment. These reassessments are normally routine affairs; the hard part is passing CALEA's evaluations in the first place. That process takes 36 months of grueling scrutiny. More than 400 procedures -- everything from evidence-handling to vehicle pursuits and police shootings -- are closely examined.

In his office on the fourth floor of police headquarters, 400 NW Second Ave., Chief Martinez told the assessors he's committed to CALEA's professional demands. He confided that things were tense: He needed to hire more officers, he had to ensure that his cops were being thoroughly trained, and the city was hot over some recent police shootings. But he was preaching to the converted. They know it's a tough job. They all wear guns.

Group picture. All four men posed as a department photographer memorialized the visit.

The assessors never did get a copy of that photograph. By the time the three cops were ready to leave town, Martinez was not in any mood to hand out mementos.

What should have been a clerical review of the department's procedures turned into a tortuous journey through a bureaucratic swamp. The assessors discovered that files they needed to review were not dated correctly or were lost entirely; various memoranda were riddled with typos and spelling errors; training manuals and copies of the department's Standard Operating Procedures were out of print (recruits were limping along with photocopied pages); there was no evidence that specialized weapons like submachine guns and sniper rifles were inspected regularly; scribbled opinions about officers involved in shootings were passed off as the thorough analysis required by CALEA. Other things, such as a broken gate securing access to a police parking lot, only made matters worse. The place was a jumbled mess. "The files that the assessors had to work with were the most poorly organized that any of the assessors had ever seen," Young, Gross, and Nix wrote in their final report. In late September of last year the team unanimously recommended that certification be revoked. CALEA executives agreed, and Miami's police department was booted out of the organization.

It was a stinging rebuke for Chief Raul Martinez. Not only did the stripped certification drop his department behind peers like the Miami-Dade and Miami Beach police departments, but pip-squeak agencies like Aventura and Indian Creek Village could now claim a distinction Miami could not.

Martinez's boss, City Manager Carlos Gimenez, had this reaction to the humiliating episode: "My understanding is that this was a record-keeping issue and that the person responsible has been replaced."

"That's the kind of answer you would expect," scoffs Kenneth Harms, a former Miami police chief who reviewed the CALEA report at the request of New Times. "If the manager truly believes it was simply a bookkeeping problem, he should take the time to read the report and see the scope of the problem. The problem is much deeper than that."

Harms was police chief from 1978 to 1984. He left after a bitter feud with City Manager Howard Gary, who was later implicated and became a cooperating witness in the corruption scandal known as Operation Greenpalm. "This is a train wreck," says Harms, "a disaster for a department to be issued this kind of report when they had years to prepare for it. This is a significant event."

"Somebody dropped the ball there," agrees Clarence Dickson, who succeeded Harms as Miami police chief, a position he held from 1985 to 1989. "That's just negligent. If they had [maintained CALEA standards], we might not have had the shootings we had, and some of the other unethical goings-on."

Within a month of the assessors' visit, significant goings-on were piling up at the police department faster than barracuda on baitfish. Just one week after the assessors departed, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced the indictment of thirteen Miami cops for their roles in a series of shootings in which the officers allegedly planted evidence. Later that month former police Chief Donald Warshaw, Martinez's mentor, was sent to federal prison for embezzling money from a police charity. By November public confidence in the department had eroded so dramatically that Miami voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of a powerful Civilian Investigative Panel to monitor a police agency that appeared incapable of monitoring itself.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten

Latest Stories