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Police union turns up heat on Miami's chief

Miami's top cop, who preaches keeping officers out of trouble, is in trouble himself -- at the hands of his own department's union.

The scandal surrounding Miami Chief John Timoney's free use of a luxury Lexus SUV has tarnished his reputation, but it underscores a larger theme: an escalation of tensions between his administration and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The union now takes credit for leaking the Lexus story, using the issue to push for the ouster of Timoney and his polarizing deputy chief, Frank Fernandez.

"This is clearly a conspiracy hatched" at a recent union conference, Timoney said this week, days before the FOP is scheduled to hold a vote of no-confidence in him and -- unusually -- in Fernandez, too.

"Im not going anywhere soon. My commitment is to [Mayor] Manny Diaz, and hes got at least two years and four months" left in his term, Timoney said. "I think the FOP was plotting a little early. Just a little early."

The unions gripes -- that Timoney's administration overemphasizes crime statistic accountability, dishes out uneven discipline and has a heavy-handed management -- are less about a free SUV than plotting a course for the department post-Timoney.

"I want them both out of here. They need to go. Their time is done, " said Armando Aguilar, Miamis outspoken FOP president.

He added: "I'm taking on one of the most popular police chiefs in this country because of the way he sells himself. I'm afraid, but I have to speak out for our members."

PAID UP, APOLOGIZED

Timoney disputes the union's contentions about statistics and discipline. But with regard to the Lexus issue -- a Kendall auto dealer let him drive a new SUV free of charge for more than a year -- Timoney has been quick to show profuse contrition.

Calling his actions "stupid, " he quickly bought the SUV, paying the sticker price. He made contributions to various charities. And he penned a deeply repentant letter published on The Miami Herald's editorial page.

Hired in 2002, Timoney has stayed in the post longer than most big-city police chiefs.

He stepped in during a tumultuous time. Thirteen police officers had been indicted in connection with four shootings and gun-planting episodes.

The chief has widely been credited with reforms, instituting stricter use-of-force policies that have drastically cut down on officer-involved shootings. At one point early in Timoney's tenure, officers went 20 months without a single police bullet fired in the field.

"Keep cops out of trouble. Thats our mantra here, " says Timoney, a media-friendly chief who frequently appears as a television commentator on anti-terrorism issues.

Not that he hasnt weathered controversy.

Civil libertarians blasted his departments handling of protesters in 2003 at the Free Trade Area of the Americas gathering in Miami and his alleged derogatory comments about Cubans. (He adamantly denied saying them.)

While union brawls are not uncommon, Timoney has largely been spared the ugly public battles he says he fought as commissioner in Philadelphia -- at one point, he protested when a Philly FOP lawyer called him a "drunken Irish carpetbagger."

In Miami, Timoney says, hes been "living in a fools paradise" with regard to union relations.

Paradise was lost beginning on Aug. 20, when WFOR CBS4 reported that Timoney had been driving the Lexus, with dealer tags on it, free of charge for about a year.

Timoney continued paying his existing lease for a Lexus sedan from the dealership, he says.

Aguilar takes credit for planting the story. He makes no apologies. "I take full responsibility for the information, " he said.

Days later, the FOP announced it would hold the no-confidence vote Tuesday, and held a press conference alleging the department systematically tweaks its statistics to downplay crime. It offered scant proof but infuriated the chief, who invited the state to examine his department's record keeping.

The union leadership showed they "are not the brightest bulbs in the pack, " Timoney said of their press conference.

UNEVEN DISCIPLINE?

The underlying issues? Union leaders don't offer many specifics but say discipline is meted out unevenly among officers.

The union also complains that the department's reliance on Compstat, a computerized system of tracking crime trends, has caused morale to plummet.

Mid-level staffers are belittled in biweekly meetings for spikes in crime, trickling discontent through the ranks, the union says.

"These meetings are nothing more than a witch hunt" against mid-level command staffers, Aguilar said.

Nonsense, the department says: The meetings are valuable in targeting crime, and commanders aren't required to meet numerical goals in crime reduction.

Said Timoney: "You work hard, and the numbers will be fine."

Overseeing Compstat is Fernandez, whose role in the recent turmoil looms large, if not larger than that of his boss. The union says Fernandez, 43, a Miami cop since 19, runs the department day-to-day in an "oppressive" way.

Fernandez bristles at that: "I'm not even sure what they're mad at about. . . . I would have never expected the union to react this way. I don't understand it."

He says the number of officers who have been disciplined has gone down in the past three years, and resources allotted to officers -- radios, computers, even weapons -- have increased dramatically.

The culture of lazy, rogue policing is gone, he says.

"If they can blame me for something, they can blame me for raising the standard, " Fernandez said. "I'm guilty. They can definitely blame me for ensuring that we have uniformity. I'm guilty of that. They can blame for making sure our cops don't get in trouble. I'm guilty of that."

What now? Elected officials, rank-and-file officers and residents are divided.

Mayor Diaz says Timoney has done a "fantastic job."

"People here have a very short-term memory. We went through a 20-month period where the police department didn't fire a single shot, " he said. "This is something that we should be proud of."

Commissioner Tomás Regalado, a perennial Timoney critic, wants him out. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff says he'd settle for a two-week unpaid suspension. Ultimately, Timoney's fate rests in the hands of City Manager Pete Hernandez.

City resident Christal Wilford saw Timoney speak at a recent homeowners association meeting in the struggling Model City neighborhood. No residents raised the Lexus scandal.

"The issues that we have in this community are major, " she said. "I mean, him getting a free Lexus -- people are getting killed in this neighborhood."

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