In late November, a beloved member of the El Portal police department was removed from duty without official explanation, causing an uproar among the village’s 2,400 residents who knew the police rookie only as “Arctic.”
A 3-year-old Siberian husky, with a face that melts hearts and a bark that sounds like a human talking, Arctic has been famous since he was officially sworn in to the police department on July 25, 2017. The tiny town of animal lovers immediately adored him, and his Facebook page quickly gained more than 1,000 followers who wanted updates on his daily activities.
Now, residents say Arctic is collateral damage in a vicious political feud between a heavy-handed mayor/manager duo and Arctic’s handler, the former police chief. It’s a saga of palace intrigue replete with half-truths, vendettas and a seemingly benign incident resulting in Homeland Security’s knocking on the door of an outspoken village resident.
Before his handler was told not to bring Arctic back to work — the police dog equivalent of being fired with no warning — Arctic was part of a community policing effort and outreach program in El Portal. Rather than barking, biting or sniffing, Arctic’s role was more therapeutic. One of his favorite assignments: hanging out with the kids at a local middle school and taking selfies with them.
They didn’t even get to say goodbye before his service was terminated.
“I think it’s kinda sad because the kids had started to build that relationship with Arctic,” said Kevin Lawrence, principal of Horace Mann Middle School. He said having Arctic around helped the children begin to build healthy, trusting relationships with police officers, and would be a major loss for the students.
In response to questions about the basis for Arctic’s abrupt dismissal, Village Manager Christia Alou told the Miami Herald that Arctic’s job with the police department never officially existed. His swearing-in ceremony was nothing more than a “feel good thing” for the residents, she said.
Emails obtained by the Herald contradict the manager’s account. They document the implementation of an official community police dog program, established by the police department and approved by the former village manager, David Rosemond, in 2017. Arctic was even added to the police department’s insurance policy and went through rigorous training paid for by the village before he was sworn in by the mayor, who frequently touted the K-9 program.
“It was a great asset to the community of El Portal. It was a shining star to the program,” said Steadman Stahl, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the police union in Miami-Dade County. Stahl said he didn’t think the apparent dissolution of the K-9 program had anything to do with Arctic’s performance. “I believe the manager and mayor had more of a problem with the handler than the dog,” Stahl said.
Arctic’s handler, Ronnie Hufnagel, was a 20-year veteran of the village police department and served as acting chief for just over a year between 2017 and 2018.
The Village Hall feud
Once a star of the village and friend of the mayor, Hufnagel had a falling out with Mayor Claudia Cubillos and her right hand, Alou, in mid-2017. Open hostilities between them broke out around Village Hall.
Records show Hufnagel never received a written reprimand until late 2018. They alleged insubordination or undermining the authority of the mayor and manager and failing to comply with an official request. There is no signature or any notation indicating Hufnagel received the reprimands.
After enduring months of public critiques and criticism by the mayor and manager, Hufnagel was demoted back to sergeant on Nov. 13, 2018.
“I have never seen so much animosity toward police,” said village resident Phillip Andronicos, who attended several of the meetings. “There was never any of this animosity when she was friends with the mayor.”
Some in El Portal say the bad blood began over the mayor’s statements regarding the level of police oversight of the debris removal process after Hurricane Irma. Hufnagel suggested there was no police oversight, despite the mayor’s public declaration to the contrary. Little proof has surfaced publicly to support either side of the dispute.
Cubillos did not respond to multiple attempts to contact her for this story. Alou did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment regarding Hufnagel’s performance.
Jose Perez, formerly of the City of Miami Police Department, was brought out of retirement to replace Hufnagel despite having no experience as chief and no connection to El Portal. Just one week into Perez’s tenure, Arctic’s services were terminated.
“I think it was one of the steps leading up to getting rid of the handler,” said Stahl. “Unfortunately you see this in small towns.”
On Dec. 10, Hufnagel was fired without explanation. The termination letter, signed by Alou and dated Dec. 9, simply instructed Hufnagel to turn in her car and any other village property and said her termination was effective immediately.
Perez wrote a reprimand stating Hufnagel “failed to display respect and recognize me by my proper rank or title” during a series of meetings he said took place to discuss Hufnagel’s conduct and work performance between Nov. 20 and the day of her termination.
In his reprimand — dated the day after Hufnagel’s termination letter was signed — Perez concluded: “I find that Sergeant Hufnagel’s continuous disruptive conduct violated department polices and procedures. Such violations amount to grounds and cause for dismissal from the Village of El Portal Police Department.”
“How do you reprimand someone if they were already terminated?” Stahl said, after reviewing the documents provided by the village. “I’m a little bit alarmed by this. I think the city is lying.”
Again, Hufnagel never signed for receipt. According to Stahl, Hufnagel was unaware of the official reprimand.
A final reprimand in her file says Hufnagel failed to return village property.
After this story was first published, Alou told the Herald she believed Hufnagel was aware of the reprimands. She said the official letters had been placed in Hufnagel’s mailbox and was unsure why they hadn’t been signed.
None of the disciplinary records from 2018 were cited as grounds for termination in Alou’s letter, nor did the city follow protocols for termination with cause.
“I think it [the termination] is a little bit retaliatory,” Stahl said. “She was well respected in the community.”
Hufnagel had just been awarded “Officer of the Year” by the South Florida Optimist District, in part for her role in starting the village’s unique community police K-9 program.
Andronicos said he and other village residents had been going to council meetings in support of Hufnagel before she was fired, speaking up for their longtime community police officer during public comment.
The final twist in the tale
Andronicos said he never expected the retaliation he faced for his involvement.
Andronicos said his relationship with the new chief got off to a rocky start when he refused to shake Perez’s hand when the two first met at Village Hall. “I knew he was going to fire Ronnie [Hufnagel],” Andronicos said by way of explanation for any rudeness on his part. But he never really blamed Perez, he said. Andronicos said it was clear to him that the mayor was behind Hufnagel’s firing. “She’s the puppet master,” he said.
After that, things got worse for Andronicos.
Around dinnertime on the day Hufnagel was fired, three plainclothes officers from the Miami-Dade Homeland Security Bureau visited Andronicos at home. The officers, generally tasked with combating potential terror threats, had questions for the 73-year-old pilot about an interaction he had with Perez earlier that day.
Andronicos told the detectives Perez had pulled out in front of his car— a coincidence, he said — and after a few blocks of driving in the same direction, he had simply pulled up alongside the squad car, rolled down his window, and asked if Hufnagel had been fired. (Waving down local officers with questions and concerns is common in the small town.)
Perez reported that Andronicos had threatened him.
According to the Homeland Security report, Perez said Andronicos had chased down his squad car and pulled up yelling about how Perez had fired Hufnagel. According to Perez’s version of the story as told to Homeland Security, Andronicos had yelled, “You sacked Ronnie. You better get ready,” as he pointed his finger at Perez.
Homeland Security found no crime had been committed and closed the case.
But Perez had also made another call accusing Andronicos of more threats.
According to records from the Miami Shores Police Department, after his run-in with Andronicos, Perez called in a favor with the nearby department on behalf of the village manager, resulting in a week of extra security around Alou’s home. Officers were warned that Andronicos had threatened to kill the village manager. It also named Hufnagel as a disgruntled ex-employee involved in some way. Miami Shores police later found the information to be erroneous and called off the increased protection. (Both Perez and Alou later denied ever reporting a death threat, despite official records of Perez’s phone call.)
Andronicos said he was targeted for being known as a supporter of Hufnagel and Arctic. He said his is a cautionary tale for El Portal residents who might get involved in local politics.
“I don’t go to the council meeting any more,” said Andronicos. “I’m afraid of retaliation.”
Hufnagel is protected from wrongful termination by the PBA collective bargaining agreement, which states an officer cannot be fired without cause. The union plans to take legal action and expects Hufnagel will be reinstated to her former position as sergeant.
“We are certainly going to defend her vigorously,” said Stahl. “And they [the village staff] are going to have to answer for their actions.” What the future holds for Hufnagel’s furry partner is less clear.
Alou dismissed Arctic as nothing more than Hufnagel’s “pet” — whose presence in Village Hall irritated her allergies — while also telling the Herald, “we certainly could take it back.”
Arctic is currently living with Hufnagel and her two civilian dogs.
This article has been updated to include the village manager’s statement about how the reprimands were allegedly provided to Hufnagel.