Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

March 13, 2013

Opa-locka has new police chief — or does it?

There is confusion about who is in charge of the police force that once employed the cop with the worst complaint record in the state of Florida.

There’s a new chief in town, but Opa-locka apparently doesn’t know it.

And neither do the two people who have been — and think they still are — chief and deputy chief.

In a quagmire that’s weird even by Opa-locka standards, North Miami’s mayor, Andre Pierre, announced Tuesday in a newsletter emailed to about 100 constituents that two of North Miami’s veteran officers have been tapped to run the police department in neighboring Opa-locka, a city that has struggled for years with poverty, crime and corruption.

It’s not an easy job. Opa-locka has had a revolving door of police chiefs: 12 in the past two decades.

But if Opa-locka has a new chief, someone didn’t tell the city manager, who is in charge of hiring.

Kelvin Baker insisted Wednesday that he hasn’t hired anyone to replace the force’s current chief, Cheryl Cason or the deputy chief, Antonio Sanchez.At a commission meeting Wednesday evening, a resident expressed outrage over the report, published online by The Miami Herald earlier in the day, that the city had hired a new chief — at least, according to North Miami’s mayor. Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor said that it was not true and that you cannot believe everything you read.

Cason is planning on retiring, Baker said, but they have a long way to go before hiring her replacement. The Miami-Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Cason Wednesday.

“The rumor has taken on a life of its own,’’ said Baker, who was hired six months ago amid a series of scandals that had tainted the city’s police force. At the time, several state probes were underway involving allegations of criminal wrongdoing on the force.

In the newsletter, Pierre extended his best wishes to North Miami Police Cmdr. Jeffrey Key, who he said has been hired as Opa-locka’s chief, and officer Peter Cruz, who has been hired as his deputy.

Both officers have already had their send-offs and have left their current posts.

“They’ve submitted their letters of resignation to the police chief,” Pierre said. “I think they had a goodbye party for them already.”

Key, who began his police career in Opa-locka, is the son-in-law of the late Robert Ingram, Opa-locka’s former mayor. Cruz, who ran North Miami’s Police Athletic League, has had a number of internal affairs complaints against him since joining NMPD in 1985. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show two complaints: one for perjury and another for providing false statements. Both were dismissed. The Miami-Herald was unsuccessful in reaching either Key or Cruz Wednesday.

North Miami’s city manger, Stephen Johnson, confirmed that the officers have been hired in Opa-locka.

“I don’t’ know about what Opa-locka is saying now. I can only go by what our officers are telling us,” Johnson said.

Pierre said he is surprised that Baker is calling the appointments rumors.

“I spoke to them personally,’’ Pierre said, of the two NMPD officers. “They are going to work in the city of Opa-locka. I think everything has been negotiated, including salary.”

The officers announced their new jobs sometime last week at a command staff meeting, Pierre added.

Baker called the announcement by the two officers “overzealous” and that the information has been “taken out of context.’’

Baker said that while he has had “informal discussions” with several candidates — including Key and Cruz — for the chief’s job, and said he intends to conduct a more “formal process” for selecting a new chief.

Until then, he said Sanchez remains on the job, and there is no effort to push him out.

“He is a professional and he knows his business,’’ Baker said.

He said there is no date set for Cason’s retirement.

Cason has had a stormy history with the department, including allegations of drug use, which were eventually dismissed.

Sanchez was hired little more than a year ago to clean up the department. Since then, many of the officers he has tried to fire have appealed their firings and suspensions only to be returned to the force.

Sanchez, who was still on the job Wednesday, declined to comment.

Baker, the former manager in North Miami Beach, acknowledged the ongoing efforts by Cason and Sanchez to reform the department.

An investigation by The Herald, published in September, detailed the department’s long history of corruption and the city’s culture of political cronyism that some allege has seeped into the day-to-day operation of the police force. City jobs, including police officer positions, are often engineered by city commissioners, according to records obtained by the newspaper.

Among other things, the mayor’s son, Johane Taylor, was hired as a police officer despite failing his police exam twice and having a criminal past involving domestic battery. He resigned last year when it was discovered that the police department failed to do a thorough background check.

Former city managers and police chiefs have long said that the city’s incestuous nature has led to appointments based on who has political pull with members of city council.

Mayor Taylor has repeatedly denied this, saying the city is a victim of bad press.

Cason, who has been with the force for nearly 30 years, has had 22 disciplinary actions and was fired for testing positive for cocaine twice. She was rehired in 1999 after reaching a settlement with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that allowed her to keep her police certification. Cason has said the tests were tainted. She was promoted to chief in 2008, but was suspended briefly in 2011 when she allegedly failed to report an accident involving her city vehicle.

Sanchez, a former assistant chief in Biscayne Park, was brought on board by Cason in January 2012. Since then, he has systematically been sifting through police files in an effort to weed out bad cops. At the time of his hiring, there were 41 open internal affairs investigations on the 58-member force. Ten police officers were fired or forced to resign, among them Sgt. German “G.B.” Bosque, who has the worst internal affairs record of any police officer in the state of Florida.

Bosque is appealing his firing, and several other cops have gotten their jobs back.

Sanchez’s critics, including John Rivera, head of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, said that Sanchez has been too heavy handed.

Baker, however, said that the city’s crime rate, once the highest in the nation, has continued to plummet under Cason and Sanchez.

“It’s obviously quite a unique city,’’ Baker said. “We are combating some of the crime issues and historical issues we are trying to put behind us.’’

Here is the excerpt from the email blast North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre sent out about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday:

Headline: Two of North Miami’s Finest to Lead Opa-locka Police Department

“Mayor Pierre congratulates two of North Miami’s Police Department’s officers as they embark on their new careers at the city of Opa-locka Police Department. Commander Jeffrey Key, who began working at NMPD in 1992, has been appointed as Chief of Police. Coincidentally, Key began his law enforcement career at the Opa-locka Police Department, and gained much respect in the community for his great way of communicating well with others.

“Commander Peter Cruz, who has served in different departments in the city of North Miami, has been appointed as Deputy Chief of Police for the city of Opa-locka Police Department. Cruz began working for the NMPD in 1985 and was the first director of the Police Athletic League, the non-profit organization which creates programs for the youth in the city, ages 8-20.

“Mayor Pierre extends his best wishes to Commander Key and Commander Cruz and much success on their new appointments.”

Miami Herald writer Janey Tate contributed to this report.

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