When Miami police brass first found out about officers protecting a sports-betting ring run out of a Liberty City barbershop, they had no idea how bad the resulting federal investigation would turn out.
Eventually, a dozen officers — all from the North District station — were implicated in a two-year investigation by Miami detectives and FBI agents of the off-the-books protection gig and other corruption crimes.
On Friday, Lashunda Hodge, one of the first officers swept up in the probe, was the last to resign. She followed others who were jailed, fired, suspended or resigned. Only the case of a minor player remains unresolved, with that officer still facing possible administrative discipline.
With the criminal side of the embarrassing scheme largely wrapped up, Police Chief Manuel Orosa is now grappling with the continuing challenge of cleaning up the reputation of a department also tainted by a string of controversial police shootings in the inner city.
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“It's unfortunate that these police officers turned to the criminal side” in the protection racket, said Orosa, who took over leadership of the troubled force in late 2011 and has quickly gained a reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian.
Orosa said justice meted out in the North District corruption scandal investigation, which cost nine of the 12 officers their jobs, “hopefully sends a message to the community that we will clean our own house and says to the officers that we will not tolerate any misconduct.”
The last time he saw anything close to this scale of police corruption in a single station was during the infamous Miami River Cops probe in the South District. Three decades ago, about 20 rogue officers were rounded up after a botched ripoff of drug dealers led to the drowning of three suspected smugglers in the Miami River.
Orosa said he does not believe the latest scandal points to a systemic problem. He noted that the dozen officers in the North District probe account for a small fraction of the 1,100-member department.
Orosa said he also ordered a number of steps to prevent future side rackets in the future. During the FBI-led investigation, he replaced the major in charge of the 120-member North District station with another commander, and personally warned officers during roll calls to stay out of trouble and report any police wrongdoing to Internal Affairs detectives.
He also said those Internal Affairs detectives often appear at roll calls and ride around with officers on patrol to make their presence known.
Orosa underlined that the cash-only protection details at the Liberty City barbershop that fronted for the illegal sports-betting business were never officially sanctioned by top commanders. All legitimate off-duty details must be managed by the department’s special events coordinator, he said.
“We can’t have off-duty officers protecting an illegal gambling establishment,” Orosa said.
The Liberty City bookmaking operations, which placed illegal bets on college and professional sports games, had been the target of an undercover gambling probe by the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Homestead police from October 2011 to March 2012, court records show.
Undercover officers investigating bookmaking at the barbershop noticed the abundance of Miami cops there. Patrol cars were so common at the shop that one gambling suspect told investigators he thought the place was run by the police. Five suspects were ultimately arrested on state charges.
Tipped off to the problem, Miami police contacted FBI agents, with whom they had already worked on a joint anti-corruption task force.
The initial signal that the North District station was under investigation came in late 2012, when a young police officer, Lashunda Hodge, became the first cop to be relieved of duty.
But Hodge, suspected of being one of the organizers of the protection racket, refused to cooperate with the joint FBI-Miami police probe. She maintained that she only filled in for another officer for two routine off-duty details at the now-defunct barbershop, Player’s Choice, at 6301 NW Sixth Ave.
When Hodge refused to assist the feds in the ensuing protection probe, FBI agents turned their attention to a more-veteran officer, Nathaniel Dauphin, who was also suspected of coordinating the illegal details. Dauphin, arrested last January, agreed to wear a wire and target other officers, including playing a lead role in a sting operation involving another purportedly illegal protection detail for a Liberty City check-cashing store.
Among Dauphin’s targets: a pair of young officers, Harold James and Vital Frederick. Last year, James pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year and three months in prison. Frederick was convicted at trial, including being found guilty of stealing people’s identities for tax fraud from a Florida driver’s license database. He is awaiting sentencing.
Dauphin got off relatively easily. After pleading guilty last year, he was sentenced to one year and two months in federal prison. But federal prosecutors then recommended his sentence be reduced by half in return for his cooperation. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke went beyond their recommendation, and reduced his punishment to three years of probation, including 90 days of home confinement.
Hodge, who had been facing potential charges for her role in the illegal sports-betting protection scheme, agreed to resign Friday.
“I’m very happy for her,” said her defense attorney, Michael Feiler. “She decided her relationship with the department was broken and it was time to move on. She wants to stay in law enforcement.”
The FBI acknowledges that the corruption investigation into the North District station would not have been possible without its partnership with the Miami police.
“They were instrumental in generating these cases,” said John Jimenez, FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the anti-corruption task force. “They were side by side with us every step of the way.”
Miami's Internal Affairs officers began working in 2009 with the FBI-led Miami Area Corruption Task Force, a team that also includes more than 20 officers from Hialeah, Miami Beach, Doral and Miami-Dade County and agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection-Office of Internal Affairs. The task force, the FBI’s largest in the country, focuses on both government and police corruption.
“I think it’s important to point out that this mayor [Tomás Regalado] and Chief Orosa did the right thing by participating in this task force — even if it meant taking a black eye,” Jimenez said.
Asked about the impact of the FBI’s probes on the Miami police, he said: “We are starting to notice our work has produced a deterrent effect.”
Orosa, a 35-year police veteran, also has had to grapple with a separate Justice Department civil investigation of seven deadly police shootings in 2010 and 2011, all involving black men in the inner city. Community activists and black leaders, including U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, had pressured federal authorities to clamp down on the cops.
Last July, the Justice Department concluded that the Miami police engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive use of force after probing 33 police shootings during that two-year period, including the seven fatalities.
Officers in five of the seven shootings have been cleared by the Miami-Dade state attorney's office.
The Justice Department ordered the police to adopt departmental changes to be monitored by a federal judge, a layer of oversight that was not imposed more than a decade ago when the department last got into trouble with federal authorities over officers’ planting guns on shooting victims.
In a letter, Orosa responded by arguing that judicial oversight was unnecessary because he had already implemented significant reforms, including dismantling a tactical team involved in multiple shootings and proposing an internal review board to oversee shootings, SWAT missions and car chases.
Orosa also said the judicial review, requiring an independent legal monitor, could cost the city millions of dollars.
Justice Department prosecutors were not pleased with his letter, and fired back a proposed settlement to the city. Orosa said the terms of that deal remain confidential, but he acknowledged that federal court scrutiny of any final settlement is not negotiable.
“The Justice Department still wants court supervision,” he said.