Two high-level former Miami Beach police officers sent hundreds of racist, pornographic and crude emails to fellow cops, spurring a criminal probe and angry words from city leaders amid a time of heightened national scrutiny on law enforcement.
Many of the emails depicting crude Internet jokes — including one showing cartoon character Bugs Bunny calling Daffy Duck a racial slur — were released Thursday as State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle detailed what she called the “juvenile behavior and locker room mentality” of the department under former police chief Raymond Martinez.
“Not only are we all offended by these emails, but this conduct seems to have been accepted by the department and permeated the highest ranks,” she said during a news conference.
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Among the photos sent via city email was one from the autopsy of motorist Raymond Herisse, who was killed by Miami Beach police during a controversial shooting in May 2011. Prosecutors are now investigating whether former Maj. Angel Vasquez broke the law when he emailed the photo to someone outside of the department.
“Disgraceful, criminal behavior,” Miami Beach Chief Dan Oates said of the photo’s release.
The investigation, which has expanded to include at least 14 other cops who received the emails, was yet another blow for a department of over 300 sworn officers that is still reeling from years of negative headlines.
“This is a very sad day for Miami Beach,” said Mayor Philip Levine.
The probe also comes at a time of often racially charged tension between citizens and police across the country. In Fort Lauderdale, three officers were fired in March for sending racist text messages and emails. Prosecutors have already dropped at least 40 criminal cases involving those cops. A similar scandal has emerged in San Francisco.
In Miami Beach, at least 16 officers sent or received 230 offensive emails, mainly between 2010 and 2012, Oates told reporters. The majority of the emails were sent by Vasquez and former Capt. Alex Carulo, who was fired on Friday. Investigators also found that Carulo used his city email to create an account on a pornography website called Dancing Bear.
The emails included numerous Internet “memes.” One featured an image of “Black Monopoly,” in which every board game square shows a policeman saying “Go to Jail.” Another depicted rapper Snoop Dog and golfer Tiger Woods in “pimp” clothing.
Still, others lampooned “illegal immigrants” and women. Mixed in were hundreds of lewd photos of pornography, all sent through the city’s email server.
In one email exchange in March 2010, Vasquez — as he sat in a training class — asked a woman to send him nude photos. She complied. “It’s been sent. Hopefully, it gets past your servers and to you,” she wrote.
“Class is getting so much better! WOW” he replied.
Martinez did not assume the position of Miami Beach’s chief until November 2011. He took over for Carlos Noriega, whose tenure was also marked by embarrassing incidents.
Oates said the inappropriate emails first came to light through another internal affairs investigation of Vasquez in late 2013. An internal affairs captain urged then-Chief Martinez to open a full investigation, he said.
Instead, Martinez simply authored a one-page memo saying Vasquez had been “counseled.” An attorney for Vasquez did not return a call for comment on Thursday.
Martinez himself, when he was an assistant chief, received at least five offensive emails from Carulo, although it was unclear whether he ever opened them. One of them depicted semi-nude photos of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
“It was a failure of accountability and leadership,” Oates said.
Martinez declined comment. Once Oates took over last year, a wider investigation was initiated and prosecutors were brought on board. At least one million emails were examined, officials said.
Vasquez, when confronted with the emails, retired last summer instead of being fired. Oates described him as a “charismatic, domineering figure within the organization with a reputation you do not cross.”
As for the other officers who received the emails, prosecutors are now examining 540 criminal cases in which they were listed as witnesses. The state wants to see whether bias was involved in the arrests. The majority of the cases were misdemeanors, and 97 remain open.
Of the criminal cases, 70 percent of the people who were arrested were white or Hispanic, the rest black. Although there is no indication that any of the nude photos are of underage girls, the images are nevertheless being sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for further review.
As for Carulo, his attorney said on Thursday that his client will fight the firing because the punishment was too severe for behavior that stopped several years ago. “This is old stuff,” lawyer Eugene Gibbons said.
“There were other people involved in the emails who received them who presumably viewed them and did nothing about it,” Gibbons said. “It wasn’t just Carulo. It was a cultural thing that was going on within the police department.”
Over the past several years, Miami Beach police officers have been implicated in controversial episodes. Earlier this month, a Miami Beach detective was suspended after he punched and kicked a handcuffed model who he said had earlier been hurling racial slurs at him.
The woman’s attorney, Menachem Mayberg, on Thursday blasted the department for firing Carulo but only suspending the officer for one month for “mercilessly beating” a handcuffed woman.
“What about the hypocrisy? What about the difference in punishment?” he said.
Mayor Philip Levine told the Herald that he thought the detective should have been fired, but he trusted the chief's judgment and acknowledged that the city would have risked losing an arbitration case.
“We have faith and trust in our police chief,” he said.
Internal affairs detectives are also investigating a Miami Beach cop named Gary Haughton on allegations that he stole two book bags from suspects. Earlier this year, Miami Beach police fired a sergeant who was drunk while working an off-duty security gig.
The list goes on. Last year, a Miami Beach cop got sentenced to 18 months in prison for running over two pedestrians — while going on an unauthorized police ATV joyride with a woman celebrating her bachelorette party.
Also last year, an arbitrator ruled in favor of a Miami Beach officer who had been fired for testing positive for cocaine. He blamed an erectile dysfunction cream he received from an unknown person; he got his job back.
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.