What's That Cop Doing in Our Huddle?

Ah, football season. You can almost smell the torn-up sod, feel the thud of crashing helmets and pads, and hear the police scanner crackling. Soon college teams all over the state will gear up for practice, including the latest entrant into the collegiate circuit, Florida International University, which will brave the glaring tropical sun to officially and literally warm up this week.

The Golden Panthers gridiron squad is a mere five years old, but the school's administration bet the future of its reputation on the team. When it launched in 2001, the men's tennis and golf teams were cut from the budget to make way for football. The stadium was upgraded. Tuition was hiked. It was heralded as the breakout move that would catapult FIU from under the shadow of the big state schools -- University of Florida and Florida State -- let alone hometown powerhouse University of Miami.

Not surprisingly, concerns persist that the school will do anything to protect the franchise. The team's competitive zeal had to be checked in May, when NCAA officials placed them on probation for holding illegal off-season workouts supervised by an assistant coach. More recently other concerns, less athletic but more embarrassing, have popped up. These involve the theft of several golf carts on campus, the arrest of some football players, the arrival of the athletic director, and the players' unarrest and release.

The theft and vandalism of the golf carts, which university staff use to get around the sprawling main campus at SW Eighth Street and 107th Avenue, had become common enough that maintenance workers had alerted campus police to be on the lookout.

At ten o'clock on the night of June 17 a witness called police and informed them that several men were driving off in golf carts from loading areas on campus. Ofcr. Richard Diaz and Cpl. Luther Cox rushed over. Cox caught quarterback Tavares Kendrick and Marquise Blair (who is not on the team) running from the scene. They quickly gave up their accomplices, defensive ends Sabas Whitaker and Venson Jones, according to a police report. In total, according to records, they had stolen three golf carts and were in the process of making off with a fourth.

Whitaker and Jones were promptly rounded up and taken to the campus police station. Officer Diaz began writing up an arrest report. Then athletic director Rick Mello, one of the first two people police contacted, arrived at the station.

"I was ordered by my supervisor Corporal Cox to write this report as an information report rather than a grand theft report," Officer Diaz recorded in his paperwork. In a supplement added to the case file, Cox wrote that "the student [sic] were not arrested because athletic director Mello (University Official) stated that he did not wish to press charges against them. The students will be referred to Judicial Affairs."

The report raises some intriguing questions. Was the school's athletic director allowed to meddle in a police matter? Did police treat these students differently because they were football players and the athletic director was present to negotiate for them?

Mello, reached on his cell phone while traveling, denied influencing the students' case at all. "It's very clear, as the director of athletics I have no say in university disciplinary matters or police matters," he said. "I can take action from a team standpoint, but that's it. I was called to the police department because of the public nature of the [football] program."

Calls to FIU's acting police director Michael Wright were returned by the school's director of media relations, Mark Riordan. "Rick Mello cannot press charges relative to an incident not involving his property, whatever the officer inferred in his report," Riordan said, dismissing Corporal Cox's unambiguous language. Riordan added that any suggestion football players were receiving special treatment was "categorically denied."

Riordan reported that the students were all referred to the school's internal disciplinary process. As a result, Whitaker lost his scholarship and was kicked off the team. The other players received punishment and reprimands. "This is a university and we take any crime seriously," Riordan said. "We also look at the crime in light of the entire context."

This is not the first time FIU police and football players have collided. On the night of July 4, 2004, two lone campus cops investigated a shooting that occurred during an alleged drug deal. Several football players were suspects. With the shooters still on the loose, then-chief Jesse Campbell failed to call for backup from a neighboring agency, Sweetwater or Miami-Dade police. Instead several FIU officers were called at home, roused from sleep, and ordered to campus. One had to drive from Broward County -- all of this while one of the two cops on duty cased the dorm where the suspect football players lived. The officer had to draw his gun and confront one of the suspect football players as he ran to his car. Inside it were two handguns.

Three football players were arrested and charged with crimes ranging from attempted murder to armed assault. Their cases are still pending. At the time of the incident, some officers grimly concluded that backup wasn't summoned immediately because the situation involved the football team and thus needed to be controlled.

The problem isn't with the athletic director or his office, it appears. It's with the cops. The FIU police department is tiny, but it's a police department nonetheless. Its officers are trained and certified by the state, are armed with guns, and are vested with the power to arrest. Yet they are treated like regular employees of the administration, like the maintenance department. Why else would a call to the police chief be returned by the school's director of communications? That's like calling Miami Police Chief John Timoney and having an aide to Mayor Manny Diaz return the call. Such cross-pollination is a disaster for accountability.

Rick Mello is doing his job by showing up in the middle of the night at the police station while several of his players face arrest. There's nothing wrong with that. There would, however, be something very wrong if police took their orders from him. After all, the jocks don't take their pass plays from the cops.

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