West Miami-Dade

Sweetwater police abuse was ‘appalling’ and total ‘breakdown in policy,’ chief says

In the Sweetwater police chief’s 30 years in law enforcement, he’s never seen such “a complete breakdown in policy” until the recent arrest of two employees.

An officer and a former detective were charged Tuesday for engaging in a “disturbing pattern of theft and physical violence.” They were arrested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as part of an investigation into decades of corruption within the West Miami-Dade city.

“The details are appalling,” said Sweetwater Police Chief Placido Diaz at a Wednesday press conference. “I’ve never encountered anything that egregious.”

Sgt. Reny Armando Garcia, 46, and former detective William Garcia, 42, face charges of organized scheme to defraud, racketeering and conspiracy. The two were accused of stealing from homes, beating citizens and even “water-boarding” a suspect until he falsely confessed to burglary.

William Garcia is not related to his former co-worker, and is in federal prison on unrelated identity theft and fraud charges.

A third employee, former Sweetwater detective Octavio Oliu, was charged in 2015 on allegations that he used a stolen Michigan license plate to avoid hundreds of highway tolls. He, too, faces racketeering charges. Oliu has been suspended without pay since his initial 2014 suspension. Reny Garcia was suspended without pay or benefits following his Tuesday arrest.

Police leadership considers the arrests a wake-up call for reform. The force is complying with the FDLE and Miami-Dade Corrections, which are investigating the department.

Diaz said the arrests reveal corruption “buried into the establishment,” prompted the department to eliminate staff — “forced and otherwise”— and become state-accredited.

The old policies held by the department were threadbare and ineffective, Diaz said. In one case, a policy stated that officers are “not allowed to accept gifts,” but later on said gifts are “up to the discretion of the chief.”

“We’ve managed to have a fairly new department and a policy in place where there wasn’t before,” said Diaz, who joined the department as chief in 2015. “We are going to be held to state standards, which are best practices nationwide [...] We are ensuring that every officer has gone through every single piece of training possible.”

Sweetwater has had problems in its police department over the years. In 2003, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office investigated a brutal beating of an 18-year-old inside the police station and in the former mayor’s car. And its former mayor, Manuel Maroño, was sentenced in 2014 to 40 months in prison for bribery.

Diaz assured the public that it’s a new day: “We don’t take money. We don’t hold evidence here anymore. And we don’t have prisoner holding cells. We’ve eliminated it. It’s a sad day, but it’s a good day.”

David Ovalle contributed to this report

Other allegations within the Sweetwater police department

▪ Reinel Valdiva, the man who was water-boarded, also had his truck seized by police and Southland Towing; the vehicle disappeared even though a judge ordered it returned. As for Valdiva’s beating. he described “William Garcia making strange movements, imitating karate-type moves and hitting him in the ear and rib area.”

▪ The officers essentially stole one man’s pickup truck, using it as a police vehicle – installing sirens and lights – while racking up toll violations.

▪ The trio of officers, without permission or a warrant, barged into one couple’s house in Homestead, stealing money and electronics and a Nissan Altima, while William Garcia made racists remarks about Colombians. One of the residents was also severely beaten – he told investigators “he thought he would die from the beatings.”