The three largest departments in the country — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — all begin their use of force guidelines with firm reminders that excessive force will not be tolerated.
The NYPD specifically reminds officers that they are criminally and civilly liable for excessive force, and that officers are expected to intervene when they see brutality on the part of their colleagues.
By contrast, Miami Beach’s guidelines limit themselves from the beginning to explaining when force is justified: “when officers reasonably believe it to be necessary to affect an arrest or to defend themselves or another from bodily harm.”
Ray Taseff, a cooperating attorney in an ACLU suit against the department, said a police force’s written policies are important in establishing institutional control.
“The policy is the ultimate reflection of what the department’s priorities are,” Taseff said. “If there are strong, affirmative statements about force being used sparingly and only in necessary circumstances, those should be the first sentence of the policy.”
Yet most critics of the department say the problem lies less in the rules than in how — or whether — officers are disciplined when they break them.
“There’s a yahoo culture at the City of Miami Beach, where they tolerate all sorts of police behavior,” said John de Leon, a civil rights attorney and a former president of the Miami chapter of the ACLU. “Accountability is key. If complaints [against cops] are sustained and there’s discipline, you start creating a culture of accountability, which is how things actually start changing.”
According to police department statistics from the last 12 years, about 33 percent of internal affairs cases have been substantiated. However, the numbers do not show how many of those involved excessive force.
Moreover, a case can be closed as substantiated when only minor allegations are upheld, like failing to file paperwork, while actual claims of brutality are dismissed.
That was the case with Milton Rodriguez’s complaint, in which Detective Reina was exonerated for using his Taser but lightly disciplined for failing to file a use-of-force report.
Rodriguez also alleged that Reina hit him in the face with his police radio while he was handcuffed, that Reina and other officers punched and kicked him, and that Reina planted a rock of crack cocaine on him to justify the arrest.
Rodriguez was charged with purchasing and possessing drugs, resisting arrest and battery against a police officer.
‘BAD COPS, MAN’
“They were bad cops, man. Like one of those movies that you see,” he said. “That was a bad night.”
Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach’s Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment on specifics of the past accusations against Reina because he said he hadn’t reviewed the detective’s personnel jacket. But he expressed confidence in the police department’s internal-affairs process and the protections that the union provides to officers.
"The department has its system in place to review internal matters, and if any issues come up during that process, then we have the ability to file a grievance and have an independent person review it," Bello said. "And what happens is, this independent person, who operates outside of any political pressure, hears our concerns and listens to the facts of the case, and that’s often when officers get cleared and get back to work."
Just eight days before Reina’s run-in with Rodriguez, as officers were arresting a man outside Club Mansion, an active duty Army sergeant named Kenneth Thompson told officers they were being too rough and took pictures with his phone.
Reina was accused of pushing Thompson against a wall and choking him. All of the allegations were deemed unsubstantiated.
Some five months later, on Dec. 9, 2007, Detective Reina chased an unarmed man named Eliseo La Bruno down the streets of South Beach and shot at him five times, striking him twice in the back, after the man engaged in a dispute with a cab driver, according to a lawsuit filed against Reina and the City of Miami Beach.
La Bruno, who survived the shooting, claimed Reina had never identified himself as a police officer, leading him to fear he was being retaliated against for the fight.
The La Bruno lawsuit was settled confidentially in April of last year. The Miami Beach Police Department confirmed that Reina is still employed as an officer there.