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Miami Police Department, torn by scandal, steps up scrutiny of its own

From the outside, the Miami Police Department seems perpetually torn by scandal, with the latest rip in the fabric — Wednesday’s arrest of a veteran officer accused of extortion — coming only days after a narcotics sergeant was convicted of corruption in an embarrassing federal trial that pitted a group of veteran detectives against their own boss.

But police and city officials say the latest string of arrests and investigations — playing out against the backdrop of an ongoing Justice Department probe into seven fatal police shootings — obscures the recent efforts of Police Chief Manuel Orosa to purge the department of bad cops.

“We cannot be following around every cop 24-7,” said Orosa, who formally took over as chief 13 months ago. “We are doing everything we can to ensure our officers are doing the right thing.”

That includes adding five more detectives to the department’s Internal Affairs Unit, which has been working hand-in-glove with the FBI in its current investigation of up to 10 officers suspected of providing protection to a Liberty City gambling ring and other crimes.

The first of those officers, 41-year-old Nathaniel Dauphin, was arrested Wednesday on an extortion charge for allegedly helping organize an off-the-books protection squad for an illegal sports-betting racket run out of the Player’s Choice Barber Shop in Liberty City.

Internal Affairs detectives also worked with the FBI in the 2010 investigation of Sgt. Raul Iglesias, a narcotics detective who was convicted Jan. 18 of eight felonies, including obstruction of justice and taking drugs and money from suspects. A second detective, Roberto Asanza, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug charges stemming from the same investigation, and later testified against Iglesias — as did four detectives who worked on his team.

The FBI’s role

Miami’s Internal Affairs officers first began working in 2009 with the FBI-led Miami Area Corruption Task Force, a team that also includes officers from Hialeah and Miami Beach, and agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection-Office of Internal Affairs. The task force, which was launched when Orosa’s predecessor, Miguel Exposito, was chief, focuses on both police and government corruption. It is the FBI’s largest anti-corruption squad in the country, said John Jimenez, the supervisory special agent overseeing it.

Of the nine Miami police officers arrested since 2010, seven have been busted by the FBI’s team.

Jimenez noted that participation in the team can be politically risky for the police departments, because the task force could end up unearthing embarrassing information. “We’re really proud of the fact that police departments are willing to participate,” he said.

Since taking over as chief, Orosa has increased the number of officers on the FBI task force from three to nine.

Orosa said he does not believe the string of arrests points to a systemic problem with his department, and emphasized that the arrested officers make up just a fraction of the department’s 1,100-member force.

“There’s always a small percentage of people who are corrupt,” Orosa said. “It’s unacceptable, and that’s why we are trying to root out the bad apples.”

Despite those efforts, some critics maintain the department’s problems are more deeply rooted in a young, inexperienced workforce that is poorly trained and supervised. They also say the department fails to reflect Miami’s diverse community and has a reputation for a cowboy-like mentality.

“I’m concerned about this pattern of misconduct by the Miami Police Department,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, echoing the sentiment of other civil rights activists. “There needs to be a widespread investigation.”

Orosa says further proof of his commitment to change is putting a higher priority on following the rules: Internal Affairs officers now often appear at roll call and ride around with officers on patrol, to make their presence known.

“We are using Internal Affairs almost like Big Brother,” Orosa said. “We want our cops to know that I.A. is out there and they are going to get caught.”

But some get caught sooner than others. The protection work at the Player’s Club Barber Shop in Liberty City went on for almost two years without detection, sources said.

The scheme was ultimately discovered by detectives with the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who were investigating bookmaking at the shop when they noticed the abundance of officers there. Patrol cars were so common at the store that one gambling suspect told investigators he thought the shop was run by the police, court records show.

Another sting

It’s not the first time that off-duty work has led to something more sinister. In 2008, Officer Geovani Nuñez was lured into a drug-protection racket while working as a security guard at Club Space and other nightclubs. His side job for the drug dealers turned out to be another FBI sting. Nuñez and a second Miami officer were ultimately charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and Nuñez was sentenced to 11 years in prison, court records show.

Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, an independent oversight board, later recommended reforms to the way off-duty jobs are doled out, to prevent officers from getting too cozy with the people who hire them. But the panel received no response from then-Chief John Timoney.

The officers “can lose their loyalties,” said the panel’s chairman, Tom Cobitz, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor. “That’s our biggest fear.”

Orosa said he is adding an additional supervisor to oversee the office that arranges off-duty assignments for officers, to ensure that officers are working only on approved jobs, and that they show up as promised. But he believes the greater danger from off-duty jobs is not the potential for corruption, but the risk of officers working too many back-to-back assignments and becoming fatigued.

Orosa said he has been more aggressive than the previous chief about punishing officers who break the rules. Last year, the number of officer reprimands spiked to 89, up from only 10 reprimands the year before, police records show. Twenty-four officers were relieved of duty for pending investigations last year, up from seven in 2011.

Under Exposito, “we did not do enough to police our own,” Orosa said. “Things are not going to get tolerated that were tolerated before.”

But Exposito says Orosa is mischaracterizing his record; he says discipline findings dropped because the number of citizen complaints dropped during his tenure. He also accused Orosa of “taking credit for the cases that we began.”

“We were very aggressive with policing our own,” Exposito told The Miami Herald. Before becoming chief, “I was an Internal Affairs investigator and I was the commander of Internal Affairs. To me, that’s one of the most important things a chief has to stay on top of.”

Citizen complaints about police conduct have declined under Orosa, continuing a four-year trend, according to records compiled by CIP. The panel receives complaints directly and also reviews those filed first to Internal Affairs. Last year, the panel reviewed 200 complaints, down from 426 in 2008, records show.

But the ACLU’s Simon said the CIP’s performance has been “disappointing.”

“We all pinned a lot of hopes on the CIP,” he said. “They need to be more aggressive, more assertive.”

Union concerns

Orosa’s approach has also sparked union criticism. Sgt. Javier Ortiz, president of the Miami chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the chief should focus less on punishing officers and more on improving training to prevent future misbehavior and improve morale.

Ortiz said he wouldn’t characterize Orosa’s statistics as “accomplishments.”

“Reprimands aren’t going to prevent a police officer from committing crimes,” he said. “Ride-alongs with Internal Affairs and radar traps don’t catch these bad apples. They just antagonize those that are doing the right thing.”

But others praise Orosa for being more open than his predecessors. Cobitz said the chief has been more responsive to the Civilian Investigative Panel, which reviews citizen complaints and recommends policy changes to the chief. The panel was created in 2001 after yet another police scandal involving more than a dozen officers accused of planting weapons at the scenes of police shootings.

“They are listening better now with the new chief,” Cobitz said.

The arrest of Dauphin — the first of several officer arrests expected in the next few weeks — comes at a sensitive time for the department. In addition to the gambling probe, the police department is also the subject of the Justice Department civil investigation of seven deadly police shootings in 2010 and 2011, all involving black men in the inner city. The shootings strained relations between the department and the black community.

In an effort to head off intervention from the feds, Orosa has already proposed a series of reforms, including dismantling a tactical team involved in multiple shootings and proposing an internal review board to oversee shootings, SWAT missions and car chases.

New blood

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who has been critical of the department’s response to the shootings, said more still needs to be done.

“A trustworthy police force is the bedrock foundation of the community,” Wilson said in a statement to The Herald. “This week’s arrest … demonstrates that we are still too far away from this ideal. I call on Police Chief Orosa to redouble his efforts to ensure that we have a diverse, respectful, honest police force that can relate to the people of Miami and serve and protect with integrity.”

Orosa may soon get that chance: The police department is hoping to hire as many as 150 new officers this year, as it loses many of its veterans to retirement.

Orosa said the department relies on a rigorous system of background checks — rejecting about nine of every 10 applicants — to weed out potential bad apples.

“We will get quality officers,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said. “What we don’t want is to go back to the 1980s when we had the River Cops” — a reference to another notorious police scandal, in which Miami officers ripped off and killed drug dealers. The scandal was blamed in part on the department’s relaxed hiring standards at the time.

Ortiz offered another suggestion for thwarting discipline issues: Raise pay. Miami officers’ starting pay is in the 40s.

“You don’t see many of these problems in other police departments that compensate their employees reasonably and have higher standards,” he said. “You can’t hire the cream of the crop when you aren’t willing to pay for it.”

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