The arrest of three Homestead police officers turned political Tuesday as the department’s police union accused prosecutors of timing the arrests to bolster the reelection campaign of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
The three officers were arrested Monday night in connection with a series of alleged beatings of men outside a bar in Homestead. The main target of the arrests, Sgt. Jeffrey Rome, is accused of beating or pepper-spraying three men in separate incidents, two of which were caught on surveillance video, according to court documents.
Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera, the state attorney’s longtime nemesis, said he is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to review how the investigation was handled by internal affairs detectives and prosecutors.
“We feel the state attorney certainly has an agenda in this case and that there are serious problems within Homestead Police Department’s internal affairs unit and with Chief Alexander Rolle’s management,” Rivera said.
Fernandez Rundle stood by the arrests, which her office pointed out were conducted along with the FBI.
“Police brutality is wrong no matter what form it takes,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “The covering-up of police brutality is equally wrong. That’s why we are prosecuting these cases in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice, who played an essential role in helping make these cases possible.
Rolle said the union is trying to “run the department.” He stood by his department’s investigation.
“I don’t think the state attorney would make arrests based on a sloppy investigation,” Rolle said.
Rome is charged with abusing the elderly, battery and false imprisonment for allegedly unprovoked attacks on three men last year at Celios’ Latin Quarter Bar, 38 NE Ninth St., where he worked off-duty security. Two of the alleged attacks were witnessed and recorded on video by Homestead detectives who said they were scoping the restaurant in an unrelated investiga- tion.
Officer Giovanni Soto is accused of attacking one man outside the bar, while Sgt. Lizanne Deegan is accused of official misconduct for allegedly failing to write a report on Soto’s incident.
Three of the victims were immigrants.
“We will not tolerate this,” Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman said at a press conference Tuesday. “We will not profile in any way, shape or form.”
Homestead officials said their department handed over the case to the state attorney in June 2011, after about two months of the city’s own investigations.
A strong response from the PBA, which represents the Miami-Dade and Homestead police departments, among others, was not unexpected.
Fernandez Rundle defeated a PBA-backed candidate in 2000 and 2004, and the PBA is endorsing her current challenger, Miami criminal-defense attorney Rod Vereen.
Vereen and Fernandez Rundle will square off Aug. 14 in the Democratic primary, which will be a de facto winner-take-all vote. No Republican or independent candidates are running.
Vereen’s campaign declined to comment Tuesday. While he enjoys the support of the police union and former Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker, he has also garnered support from inner-city activists who have complained about unfair policing and controversial police shootings.
At a recent informal debate, Vereen said, “Just because I have the backing of the PBA, that does not mean I will turn a blind eye to police misconduct and corruption” if elected. Vereen has also blasted Fernandez Rundle for what he says are “political prosecutions.”
Fernandez Rundle has the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents city of Miami police officers.
As for Rivera, he has been a longtime critic of the state attorney since her office investigated and eventually brought down the union’s ally, County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, in 1998. Rivera famously said two years later: “A Martian could run against her and we’d support the Martian.”
Rivera and top union staffers criticized prosecutors and attended the 2010 trial of two Miami-Dade officers convicted of stealing from a drug dealer. An appeals court upheld the convictions, which resulted in prison time for the officers.
Rivera on Monday blasted prosecutors for taking 15 months to make the arrests, and claimed they were payback for the union’s probing the State Attorney’s Office’s financial dealings.
“I want to be clear, the PBA does not condone the behavior of rogue cops. However, each situation is different, and all officers facing charges cannot be painted with the same brush. In my years of experience, this is one of the worst cases I have seen of bad prosecution, bad investigation and bad administration.”
Local immigrant activists said they were not surprised to hear about the allegations of police abuse of immigrants. But they took comfort that arrests have been made in this case.
“This is like a baby trying to take a first step,” said Herman Martinez, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, a human rights organization. “We want to see the baby walking already.”
Defense lawyers for the arrested officers say their clients are innocent. “To me, it’s like Swiss cheese, there’s so many holes in this case,” said Rome’s attorney, C. Michael Cornerly.
Rome, who has been with the department since 1994, has been investigated by its internal affairs unit 17 times. Only two of the investigations, for “violation of law/conduct unbecoming” and for neglecting and “evading performance of duties,” were sustained, according to his personnel file.
Many of his internal affairs files are not available because the department, by law, can get rid of them after a certain amount of time.
Rome was disciplined in 2001 after he was charged with drunken driving. He was placed on administrative duty with no police powers for two years, enrolled in an alcohol-treatment program and had to make a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.
According to police and court records, Rome got in his car after having five rum-and-Cokes at a local bar, and rear-ended another car. Breath tests taken about an hour after the crash showed that Rome’s blood alcohol level was .181 and .187. Florida’s legal limit for driving is .08.
The driver of the other car broke a tooth and an elderly woman in the back seat broke her pelvis and fractured her hip, according to FDLE records.
Rome’s breath tests were not allowed to be used at his trial because the judge decided Rome was coerced into giving them. An expert also testified that there was no way Rome could have avoided the accident.
Deegan, who has been with the department since 1993, has been the subject of five internal affairs investigations, none of which were sustained, according to city records.
Officer Soto had never been investigated by internal affairs before this case, records show.