Despite no advertised search and no public input, Opa-locka’s mayor and city manager on Wednesday announced they had hired a new chief to take the helm of one of the most scandal-plagued police departments in South Florida.
Former North Miami officer Jeffrey Key was hand-picked by Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and City Manager Kelvin Baker. Less than a week earlier, both had denied Key was in line for the job. At the time, Key had already resigned from his old job, and North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre had issued a news release congratulating Key on his new position running the Opa-locka department.
In last week’s statement, Pierre also congratulated one of Key’s colleagues, Peter Cruz, saying he would join the chief as his deputy. The pair had already had their North Miami P.D. farewell parties.
Baker, however, said Wednesday that Cruz, who has a long history of internal affairs complaints, has not been hired — at least not yet.
Key, who started his career in Opa-locka, has no major blemishes on his record, and comes politically connected. He is the son-in-law of the city’s former mayor and police chief, the late Robert Ingram. He s the city’s 13th chief in 20 years, a reflection of years of turmoil within the city and its police force.
“Mr. Key is no stranger to Opa-locka. In fact he started his career in our community,’’ Baker said in announcing Key’s appointment at a news conference outside the Opa-locka’s city hall.
Key replaces Cheryl Cason, who recently retired. Cason, her arms locked with Key during the public announcement, said she was proud to pass her baton to Key, whom she encouraged to go into law enforcement more than 20 years ago.
Cason, hired in 1984, has had her tenure with the force marred by two failed drug tests and more than 22 disciplinary charges before she was named chief.
Key thanked the mayor, city commissioners and city manager, saying that he was honored to walk in Cason’s footsteps, and that his top priority was to reduce crime.
Ironically, as he was speaking to the media, thieves were smashing car windows about half a football field away, directly in front of city hall. No one, including the chief, noticed the crime as it was taking place. Two Miami Herald reporters discovered the break-ins to their cars after the news conference had ended.
Neither Taylor nor Baker would elaborate on the hire after the news conference.
Assistant City Manager David Chiverton was given the task of fielding questions about how the search for a new chief was conducted and how North Miami was able to announce that Key had been hired before anyone in Opa-locka professed to know anything about it.
Chiverton said that Key was selected from among several candidates who had approached the city on their own and several others to whom Baker had reached out. There was no public search, he said.
About a half hour later, Baker returned to where television reporters had been taking video of the two vandalized vehicles, in a parking lot directly across the street from city hall.
He was asked again to talk about the hiring process for the new police chief. He called the move to hire without a formal search “an executive decision I made,’’ based on “some of the challenges before us.’’ He declined to elaborate.
“I can’t get into the legal issues on why, but I needed to have someone in place immediately,” he said.
Baker’s thoughts on the burglarized vehicles: “It’s obvious we have our work cut out for us here in the city of Opa-locka.”
It’s not clear whether the city planned to keep Deputy Chief Antonio Sanchez, who came under fire shortly after he was hired in January 2012. Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association had targeted Sanchez because he had been trying to root out some of the department’s bad cops.
Among them was German “G.B.” Bosque, a veteran police officer who has the worst complaint record of any police officer in the state. During his 20-year-career, he has been fired at least five times for incidents ranging from bungled investigations to complaints about excessive force, ignoring direct orders and keeping crucial evidence in the trunk of his patrol car.
Another Opa-locka police officer, Arthur Balom, has been jailed since being caught in a federal drug sting.
For years, Opa-locka’s police force has been ridiculed as the place where almost any cop, even one with a criminal past, could get hired.
Key acknowledged Wednesday that when he went to North Miami from Opa-locka he was mocked by fellow officers for coming from a department with such a bad reputation.
“Opa-locka is not the same place I left 20 years ago,’’ Key said. “It has progressed.’’
Key declined to say if he still planned to hire Cruz.
According to records obtained by The Herald, Cruz has a voluminous internal affairs file. Among the complaints: that he super-imposed fellow officers’ faces onto gay pornographic photographs and distributing them in the police department — an allegation that as dropped; conduct unbecoming of an officer for making derogatory comments about an officer’s wife; and disparaging fellow officers.
Key called Cruz “a viable candidate” for the deputy post.
On the effort to continue reform of the department, he said: “Everything has to be assessed.’’
Miami Herald staff writer Nadege Green contributed to this story.