Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Miami Gardens’ new acting police chief brings personal, professional baggage of his own

In 2007: Miami Gardens councilman Oscar Braynon (now a Florida state senator), then-Mayor Shirley Gibson and Antonio Brooklen, then a Miami Gardens police major.
In 2007: Miami Gardens councilman Oscar Braynon (now a Florida state senator), then-Mayor Shirley Gibson and Antonio Brooklen, then a Miami Gardens police major. Miami Herald File

The last two years have been challenging for Miami Gardens and its police department: The force has dealt with accusations of police harassment, crime, gang violence and now the firing of its police chief — less than a year after he was hired.

Miami Gardens Assistant Police Chief Antonio Brooklen, an officer with about two decades of experience, has been temporarily appointed to replace Chief Stephen Johnson, the city’s top cop arrested Feb. 27 in a Broward Sheriff’s prostitution sting.

Brooklen, 40, is stepping into the leadership role after a recent span of negative attention for the department. And since joining the department in 2007, he has dealt with his own share of personal and work-related issues.

According to Brooklen’s personnel file, he received a 30-day unpaid suspension in 2009 after an Internal Affairs investigation determined he was in an “intimate personal relationship” with a former employee, which violated departmental policy, according to then-Assistant Chief Paul Miller.

The investigation detailed that Brooklen met with the employee at police headquarters and in his vehicle, and that they had several conversations about her romantic life and her physical appearance. He invited her to a nightclub on multiple occasions, including during a city council meeting.

The report said that while many of the former employee’s allegations of sexual harassment weren’t fully proven, Brooklen’s actions “were clearly inappropriate and not within the guidelines of the department.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators also found more than 60 “sexually explicit” pictures on Brooklen’s work computer. In his deposition, Brooklen said he was viewing a related website while looking at the pictures.

Earlier that year, Brooklen was demoted from major to captain after a separate investigation into incidents involving officers he supervised. In that report, also written by Miller, Brooklen was criticized multiple times for not providing timely information and being uninformed about situations involving his officers, including showing up late to the scene of a police-involved shooting in 2009.

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said that despite Brooklen’s early mishaps he can lead the force until a permanent chief is hired.

“I don’t live in a perfect world with perfect people, I live in a world where people make mistakes,” Gilbert said. “Whatever mistakes Interim Chief Brooklen made six years ago, he’s worked hard for the residents and people of Miami Gardens since then.”

Gilbert said that in Brooklen’s capacity as assistant chief he oversaw operations that coincide with his new role as acting chief, the main difference is that he’s now the face of the department.

“While we might’ve hit a speed bump, it doesn’t change what’s required for the work and I’m confident that the interim chief can do what’s required of him,” Gilbert said.

Brooklen started his law-enforcement career in the Miami-Dade Police Department in 1994 as a public service aide in the Northside District. He moved up the ranks, eventually becoming a lieutenant and overseeing the neighborhood resource unit. Miami-Dade supervisors described him at the time as “an asset to the department and the community in which he serves.”

The city of Miami Gardens hired him in 2007 as a major in its new police department.

Two years later, Miami Gardens demoted him to captain. Brooklen’s evaluations gradually improved and he completed training sessions on harassment and cultural diversity. A supervisor described him as a “vital cog to the future succession in this agency” in a 2012 evaluation.

City Manager Cameron Benson said he will look to Brooklen for leadership during the police department’s transition, but stopped short of endorsing him for the permanent job.

“Anyone’s who’s interested needs to apply for the position,” Benson said.

Benson said the city has reached out to the Florida Sheriffs Association for assistance in finding Miami Gardens’ new permanent chief and described Johnson’s firing as a “tough situation.”

“Given the circumstances, it’s refreshing to see the department and command staff and officers respond,” Benson said. “They haven’t allowed this to get in their way and keep them from doing the things we need to do.”

Johnson was brought in last May after the departure of Chief Matthew Boyd, who led the force since it started in 2007. Boyd left shortly after the owner of the 207 Quickstop convenience store alleged in a lawsuit that Miami Gardens police officers routinely harassed his employees and customers. The Miami Herald reported the allegations in late 2013.

The Miami Gardens police department has faced criticism in recent weeks with protests and vigils following the fatal police-involved shooting of Lavall Hall, a mentally ill man who police said attacked officers with a broomstick. Hall’s family filed a lawsuit last week against Johnson and the department.

Johnson’s case in Broward County court also remains open. In a brief phone interview with the Herald, he declined to comment on the case and offered a statement through a spokesperson.

“I have already acknowledged that I’ve made a mistake and I’m asking that you respect the privacy of my family as we seek healing in this very difficult period,” the statement said.

Despite the recent attention, Benson pointed to the some of the impact Johnson had during his tenure. Homicides in the city decreased from 23 in 2013 to 13 in 2014, according to police department numbers. Robberies and aggravated assaults were also down in 2014.

“I was excited about some of the things we were able to do under the leadership [Johnson] gave us at that time,” Benson said.

Benson said the city hopes to begin advertising the new police chief position in the next few weeks.

Related stories from Miami Herald