Crime

When Miami fires cops, they usually get their jobs back — even if they’re murder suspects

Adrian Rodriguez, pictured here at an arbitration hearing for his firing from his job as a Miami police officer. He is being investigated for his role in a decade-old homicide. An arbitrator last month ruled he deserved to have his job back.
Adrian Rodriguez, pictured here at an arbitration hearing for his firing from his job as a Miami police officer. He is being investigated for his role in a decade-old homicide. An arbitrator last month ruled he deserved to have his job back. City of Miami

Over the past three years, nine Miami police officers have been fired — accused of everything from unjustly shooting a suspect to sleeping on the job to firing a gun in a drunken rage while off-duty.

All but one of them have gotten their jobs back through an automatic review process called arbitration.

The latest officer dismissed, Adrian Rodriguez, is being investigated for his suspected role in a decade-old robbery and murder. Nonetheless, an arbitrator last month ordered him returned to the job.

Fed up with the string of losses in police arbitration hearings, city officials are now planning to ask a Miami-Dade judge to overturn the Rodriguez decision, a step they haven’t pursued in previous cases. It’s rarely a successful legal tactic but one the police brass argues is forced by the prospect of allowing a suspect in a murder case to return to active duty.

“This is a case we have to appeal,” Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes told the Miami Herald. “Adrian cannot return to the streets as a police officer.”

Rodriguez’s union-appointed lawyer, Eugene Gibbons, called any appeal “frivolous” and bound to fail. Arbitrators are agreed upon by lawyers on both sides, he said.

“The arbitrator was hired to do exactly what he did. They’re just not happy with the result,” Gibbons said. “It’s a stall tactic. They don’t want Adrian to go back to work.”

Rodriguez’s case underscores the difficulty in firing police officers who have not been charged for any crimes – and the city’s woeful track record in making them stick. Only once in nine challenges has an arbitrator upheld a police-officer firing in the last three years.

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Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, pictured here at a May 2017 press conference, says the city will appeal an arbitrator’s decision to reverse the firing of a cop being investigated for a homicide. C.M. Guerrero Miami Herald

As for the eight officers awarded their jobs back, all save one are back on the force. He wound up resigning, even after winning in arbitration.

Under the city’s collective-bargaining agreements with various workforce unions, any permanent employee who has been disciplined is entitled to an arbitration hearing. The decisions by the arbitrators, who are specially trained lawyers, are generally binding under Florida law.

Heard by state circuit judges, appeals are rarely successful because Florida law restricts the reasons why an arbitration decision can be reversed. Those include proving misconduct, fraud or partiality by an arbitrator not necessarily the merit of the decision or interpretation of the facts.

“Arbitration awards have a high degree of finality to them,” said Miami labor lawyer Teri Guttman Valdes, who handles police firing cases but is not involved in Rodriguez’s case. “There are very limited means by which you can seek to vacate them.”

Controversial arbitration agreements involving police officers are not new. They happen in municipalities across South Florida.

Miami Beach Sgt. Michael Muley was caught drinking while in uniform on South Beach, but was given his job back last year through arbitration. Two years earlier, a Miami Beach cop who blamed his positive drug test on a cocaine-infused erectile dysfunction cream got his job back through arbitration.

Across the causeway, the city of Miami has been more aggressive about terminating employees for misconduct in recent years, and that has meant more arbitration hearings. A tenth officer who was fired pursued a different legal route and also was awarded his job back by a circuit court judge.

Attorney Gibbons, appointed through the Fraternal Order of Police, said the city is trying to “bully us around.” The FOP president, Javier Ortiz, said: “When the city puts in effective leadership to handle these cases, they might actually win. Many of their actions are personal, which is why the FOP wins 98 percent of the time.”

Arbitration also has benefited employees outside the police department since 2015. At least three other employees have gotten their jobs back, including a public works employee fired after she missed three days of work for threatening a coworker with a baseball bat.

As for police, most famously, Miami Police Officer Reynaldo Goyos in 2014 got his job back for a controversial fatal police shooting of an unarmed motorist following a traffic stop. Though Goyos was cleared criminally under Florida law, the department fired him after a firearms review board ruled the shooting “unjustified.” But an arbitrator ruled in his favor. Goyos returned to the force.

As for Rodriguez, homicides detectives have been investigating his role in the 2007 murder of a cell-phone store manager, a killing that happened shortly before Rodriguez became a cop. The story was first reported by the Miami Herald.

Rodriguez was an employee at the MetroPCS store when gunmen shot and killed his colleague, Yosbel Millares, in the parking lot in robbery gone wrong. Rodriguez was interviewed the day of the murder, but was not suspected of playing a role at the time.

It was not until Miami detectives learned that Rodriguez’s brother had confided to witnesses intimate details about the crime that the public did not know — including the possible involvement of his brother, Adrian, and their father, Norberto. Detectives believe the family arranged the robbery of the cell-phone store.

Three years later, Adrian Rodriguez sat down the the detectives for an interview.

But as soon as they told him they suspected his father took part in the botched robbery, Rodriguez invoked his Constitutional right to remain silent. He was immediately suspended – with pay.

Rodriguez has not been charged with any crime but the investigation remains open.

By June 2016, Miami’s police chief fired him — for not informing his supervisors of his whereabouts on three occasions during his suspension.

But arbiter Donald Spero ruled that Rodriguez was improperly fired for not cooperating with detectives and the cop had every right to invoke the Fifth. And as for not telling supervisors about his whereabouts, that “does not merit severe discipline,” Spero wrote in his 11-page ruling.

The arbitrator ordered Rodriguez returned to his job, albeit with no back pay. The decision puts the city in quandary.

Technically, he could be suspended again with pay until the homicide probe concludes – which could be never. Neither side agrees that’s a good idea.

“He’s ineffective. He can’t be a police officer. He can’t hold that title,” Chief Llanes said. “How long are we going to keep him around? Why should the taxpayers foot the bill?”

His lawyers are preparing to go to court to ask a judge to enforce the arbitration award. If the department suspends him again, said Gibbons, “they’re basically going to let him sit at home and collect a paycheck.”

Even if Rodriguez gets his badge and gun back, he could be relegated to desk duty with little interaction with the public.

The reason: Rodriguez would be the key witness in any arrest he makes – even for a low-level crime such as loitering, or marijuana possession. His past would be fair game for any defense attorney.

“A police officer's lack of candor and unwillingness to participate in an open homicide investigation would immediately discredit any testimony he or she would provide as a key witness in any other criminal trial,” said former Miami prosecutor Allison Freidin.

“The citizens of Miami-Dade County have a hard enough time trusting decorated veteran officers, let alone one who has been implicated in a murder and refuses to cooperate with authorities.”

ARBITRATION WINNERS

Eight fired Miami police officers have been awarded their jobs back through arbitration during the past three years. They are:

▪  Adrian Rodriguez, who is being investigated for his role in a decade-old killing of a cell-phone manager. An arbitrator last month ruled he was improperly fired for invoking his constitutional right to remain silent.

▪  Reynaldo Goyos, who was fired after a city firearms board ruled his shooting of an unarmed motorist was “unjustified.” In 2014, an arbitrator disagreed and he was returned to the force.

▪  Tony Francoeur, who while drunk on tequila and fuming about his cheating wife in November 2015, fired more than a dozen rounds “throughout his home.” His bullets hit nobody. After a brief standoff with Miami Gardens police, he was not arrested but was submitted for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation.

An arbitrator acknowledged the “emotional bombshell” dropped on Francoeur and that his “conduct was egregious.” But the episode did not “justify permanently ending his law enforcement career,” the arbitrator James Stokes ruled.

▪  Jean-Marie Philippe, who was fired after he was found sleeping his patrol car while on duty in April 2015. Before that, he had notched a lengthy disciplinary record, including several suspensions for misconduct, including for sleeping on duty.

In his ruling, arbitrator Elliot Shaller noted that “sleeping on duty constitutes serious misconduct” but that he only deserved a “lengthy suspension,” not firing.

▪  Alfredo Matias, whp was fired in 2015 after he was accused of lying under oath about the role of a confidential informant in a drug bust at a Miami housing project. He was a former member of the squad run by disgraced Miami police Sgt. Raul Iglesias, who remains imprisoned on corruption charges.

Arbitrator Stokes ruled that the city did not prove the case against Matias, who had a clean record and even alerted internal affairs to the conduct of his former sergeant. His co-worker, Luis Valdes, was also fired for fibbing about the incident; his firing, however, was upheld by an arbitrator — the only one of nine cases in three years won by the department.

▪  Giraldo Linares, who was found to have lied on documents filed in court as part of his personal bankruptcy in 2012. An arbitrator in 2015 ordered him reinstated and awarded back pay;. He could have faced criminal charges but agreed to resign

▪  John-Paul Guillot, who had a long history of disciplines before an internal affairs investigation concluded in 2013 that Guilloy had no probable cause to order the arrest of a motorist. An arbitrator ruled that Guillot should have stopped the arrest, but the penalty of firing was “too severe.”

▪  Justin Garcia, fired in 2015 after the city found he had a long pattern of failing to do basic tasks like turning in worksheets, completing arrest forms properly and keeping his patrol car neat and tidy. The arbitrator ruled that Garcia’s sloppiness didn’t merit firing.

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