Miami Police Lt. Edmond Croughwell was caught red-handed. He and his squad of seven officers were "piggybacking" -- using more officers than necessary to make cases that allowed them to go to court and pile up overtime. It worked like this:
A policewoman dressed as a decoy prostitute paraded down Biscayne Boulevard while Croughwell's squad waited nearby. As cars went by, male drivers leaned toward the decoy, offering dollars for sex. The amounts were small: $5, $10, $20. The big money began after the arrests. For example, one $20 offer of sex turned into a total of $1,800.90 in court overtime for the eight officers -- even though only the decoy officer who witnessed the offer was needed to prove the case in court. "As far as I'm concerned, that's stealing, " said former Miami Police Capt. Norfleet Harris, who investigated Croughwell. "Clearly, eight or nine officers are not needed to prosecute a case involving a $5 [sex act]." In just a single night of such prostitution arrests -- misdemeanors that rarely result in jail time -- the Croughwell crew split up an eventual $7,554.21 in court overtime, according to payroll records obtained by The Herald. Four hours on the street turned into 266.94 hours in court overtime. "They were literally ripping the system off, " Harris told The Herald in a recent interview. "If you look at the total money that the city was losing, we're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars there." Keeps on collecting Even after he was caught and told not to go to court, Croughwell still went and collected money. "I can't sit here in front of you and justify this, OK?" Croughwell said at a 1995 disciplinary hearing. He was eventually demoted. But his case was never referred for criminal prosecution. "I made the decision in the Croughwell case, " Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw said. "Harris doesn't have the ultimate decision [on who is referred for prosecution]. When he becomes the chief, he can decide." Croughwell, 40, refused to speak with a Herald reporter. "You can write what you want, " he said. "I have no comment to make." The Croughwell case shows how hard it is to change a system that has put extra money in police pockets for decades, even though the city of Miami, pushed to the brink of financial collapse last year, can hardly afford it. The Herald obtained tapes of the Croughwell proceedings and got a rare glimpse of Miami police discussing the mechanics of piggybacking. The case began in 1994, when Harris, then in charge of the Miami Police Department's Central District, began to investigate court overtime abuse on the midnight shift. Harris found that Croughwell and his squad regularly took part in prostitution cases with eight or more officers piled on as witnesses. Counseling given For Croughwell, a 17-year veteran known as an aggressive street officer and a disciplinarian, it was part of a pattern. He had been counseled the previous year for similar abuse. His then-supervisor said he thought it was a "dollars per collars" situation, but couldn't prove it. Harris ordered more counseling for Croughwell and other midnight shift supervisors whose men took part in piggybacking cases. The officers were not pleased at the prospect of losing overtime money. "The officers on the shift were very irate, " said Lt. Ken Nelson, who did the counseling. "They were very upset that we're telling them that they couldn't go to court." For his part, Croughwell simply ignored a specific warning in December 1994 to stop going to court on piggybacking cases. Within a week, he went to court on one of the cases and made $44.35 in overtime. He went again in January 1995, making $113.37. But Harris was watching, and he ordered Croughwell investigated again, this time formally. Croughwell was caught going to court 15 times for piggybacking cases in the first six months of 1995. (Croughwell ended up earning $13,361.91 in court overtime in 1995, a 38 percent increase over 1994.) Croughwell was formally reprimanded and he lost a recent promotion to lieutenant. Fights a reprimand But he fought the reprimand at a police review board hearing in November 1995, mounting an aggressive defense. Police officers called as witnesses on Croughwell's behalf said Capt. Harris was on a vendetta. Harris said he was accused of being a racist; Harris is black, Croughwell is white. Croughwell's defenders also said that piggybacking was pervasive and that Croughwell was the only one being punished for it. "Although this was a widespread practice on all shifts, Sgt. Croughwell was singled out by Capt. Harris, " said Lt. Armando Guzman, who presented Croughwell's defense. Harris said the officers who rallied around Croughwell were essentially defending themselves because piggybacking is so ingrained in the department. "A lot of these guys came to his defense simply because of their connections with the union, " Harris said. "They were protecting their own situation." One officer testified that all eight officers were needed as witnesses because all eight performed a function. But other officers disagreed. "When you have an arrest, only those necessary should be on there, " Lt. Warren Barnes testified. "As few as possible needed to be on the A-Form; not a sergeant, not four or five police officers, six police officers, so on." But Sgt. Steve Rossbach, a Miami Police court liaison officer, said prosecutors insisted on bringing all police involved in an arrest to court as witnesses. Prosecutors say they are obligated by law to tell defense attorneys about any pertinent police witnesses. Under the current system, all such witnesses get automatic subpoenas to go to court. But prosecutors also say that does not give the police license to use more officers than they need to make routine prostitution arrests. 'Something wrong' Chief Warshaw said that such abuses won't be tolerated. "There is something wrong with anyone who milks our system for financial gain, " Warshaw said. The review panel upheld Croughwell's demotion. He appealed to an arbitration process. The resolution: Croughwell recovered his rank but lost his back pay as a fine. The arbitrator stated that the resolution came because both sides wanted to "promote harmonious relations" with a minimum of expense, "including litigation." After Croughwell's 1995 hearing, eight or nine police witnesses continued to appear in prostitution cases in the department's North District. Miami Police officials say they were aware of the continuing problem and took steps to end it. In a recent memo, the supervisor of the prostitution stings in the North District said he will limit the number of police witnesses to five. On Dec. 10, 1996, more than a year after the review panel hearing, Croughwell went to court on a prostitution case that had lingered in the courts for two years. It was one of the original piggybacking cases he had been disciplined for. Why it happened It happened in part because the subpoena database of the state attorney's office cannot tell who is supposed to go to court and who isn't. Unless an officer calls prosecutors and has himself removed from the case, the computer issues an automatic subpoena to the officer as long as the case is alive. So Croughwell -- and the other officers originally listed as witnesses in the case -- automatically got subpoenaed. By then, Nate Harris was no longer acting as a watchdog. He had retired and moved to upstate New York. Edmond Croughwell put in for 3.3 hours of overtime and earned $124.71. Nobody said a word.
STROLLING FOR DOLLARS, SEPT. 15-16, 1994 A ROUTINE PROSTITUTION SWEEP CAN BECOME A LUCRATIVE PROPOSITION FOR POLICE. HERE'S HOW IT WORKED IN ONE STING: LILIAN HUNTER, A POLICE OFFICER, DRESSED UP AS A PROSTITUTE AND WENT STROLLING FOR JOHNS. AS MEN DROVE BY OFFERING MONEY FOR SEX, SHE SIGNALED OTHER OFFICERS. EVEN THOUGH ONLY THE UNDERCOVER POLICE OFFICER'S TESTIMONY WAS NECESSARY TO OBTAIN A CONVICTION, ALL OF THE OFFICERS ON THE DETAIL WERE LISTED AS WITNESSE, WHETHER THEY WERE DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN THE ARREST OR NOT. OVER THE NEXT TWO YEARS, AS THE CASES DEVELOPED, ALL EIGHT IN THE DETAIL GOT AUTOMATIC SUBPOENAS TO ATTEND COURT ON NEARLY EVERY ARREST, EARNING OVERTIME EVERY TIME THEY APPEARED. NONE OF THEM EVER TESTIFIED. OFFICERS INVOLVED
Hunter was the only officer needed to testify; all the others were not necessary to prove the charges.