Miami-Dade County

Former Miami police chief John Timoney fighting cancer at rehab clinic

Former Miami Chief John Timoney in 2009 during a mock rescue triage at AmericanAirlinesArena.
Former Miami Chief John Timoney in 2009 during a mock rescue triage at AmericanAirlinesArena. Miami Herald File

John Timoney, a tough Irish cop who grew up in New York and rose through its policing ranks before landing top spots in Philadelphia and Miami, is fighting lung cancer in a South Florida rehabilitation clinic.

Timoney, 68, was doing consulting work in the Middle East and returned to Miami for a physical when he was diagnosed. A friend who recently saw the former chief said he’s been in and out of hospitals for several months, but seems to be improving.

“He was looking stronger,” he said.

Timoney rose to police lore in Miami during a seven-year run that ended in 2010 by acting and sounding tough, but by emphasizing the use of non-lethal force.

When Miami police started using electronic stun devices called Tasers, Timoney took one in the chest as television cameras rolled. When someone stole a woman’s purse near his downtown Miami apartment building, the chief chased him and caught him.

The day he was sworn in as part of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz’s administration, 11 of Timoney’s officers were on trial for concocting evidence and planting guns during several shootings. Seven were convicted.

Within two years, bad cops had been punished and crime dipped. Officers in Miami were heralded for going 20 months without firing a weapon. Still, there were controversies, some that involved civil liberties issues.

Timoney took over the department in 2003, the same year protests at the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami made international headlines. To handle the swelling crowds, Timoney instituted a set of policies that soon became known as The Miami Model. The model consisted of preemptive arrests, heavily armed undercover cops, embedded police and intelligence gathered from protestors.

The ACLU and other groups filed lawsuits arguing that police used abusive tactics during many of the 300 arrests, most that were later dismissed and most of which were for minor offenses.

Five years later, Timoney was fined $500 and received a written reprimand from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for not disclosing the use of a $54,000 SUV for a year. He was also docked a week’s pay by the city of Miami.

Delrish Moss, who rose through Miami’s police ranks and recently left for the top spot in Ferguson, Missouri, said he owes much of his career advancement to Timoney.

“He was one of the best police chiefs we’ve ever had. He took the Miami Police Department leaps and bounds forward,” Moss said. “I probably owe the fact that I’m police chief in Ferguson to some of the things he saw in me that elevated my career.”

In 2010, Timoney was finally forced out of Miami after Tomas Regalado replaced Manny Diaz as mayor.

Timoney’s road to Miami was typical of an Irish immigrant. At 13, he moved with his family from Ireland to New York City’s hard-scrabble Washington Heights neighborhood. To fit in, he changed his name from Sean to John.

After high school he did clerical work with the New York City Police Department. By 1969 Timoney was a beat cop. He later became the city’s youngest four-start chief and was named deputy commissioner under William Bratton. Ignored after Bratton left, Timoney was off to Philadelphia where he was named police commissioner in 1997.

There, he forced new training techniques and transformed internal affairs, turning around a corruption-plagued department. He had some blowback in 2000 during the Republican National Convention when the ACLU and others complained about the non-lethal force used by his officers. The organization argued actions like pepper-spraying violated protestors’ rights. Nearly 400 protestors were arrested, with nearly all of the cases being later tossed.

Timoney was soon replaced in Philadelphia by Bratton. But Miami was watching. And as the FTAA protests approached in 2003, he was hired by Diaz.

Since Miami, Timoney has done some consulting work stateside but spent much of his time doing work in the Middle East. He still has a home in Miami, and visits occasionally during the holidays.

On Wednesday, he didn’t respond to several requests for an interview. A friend said the former chief’s voice was in bad shape and that he had “limited speech.”

Earlier in the day, the Philadelphia website for NPR member station WHYY ran an article on Timoney saying he had Stage 4 lung cancer and that in an email exchange the former chief noted that his father died of cancer at 54.

“Voice completely gone,” the chief responded to the site in an email.