Union chief says controversy was part of protecting his cops. His rank-and-file ousted him.

John Rivera
John Rivera Miami Herald file 2013

When a Miami-Dade cop needed defending, John Rivera could be counted on as one of the loudest and most controversial voices in the room.

For more than two decades the president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, Rivera exercised his powerful perch with an explosive streak, speaking up for police officers in public no matter the charge. He said the officer who shot Charles Kinsey last year was the victim of media “sensationalism,” despite felony attempted-manslaughter charges later filed by the state attorney’s office.

He backed up a county commissioner who championed police issues even after the politician was accused of mortgage fraud and resigned. He also regularly went toe-to-toe with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in contract talks, comparing him once to a sexually transmitted disease and calling him a terrorist. When Gimenez proposed a body-camera program for police, Rivera dismissed it as a “desperate” play for the African-American vote.

After the union he helmed since 1993 rejected his reelection bid Monday, Rivera said he was proud of the legacy he was leaving behind. That legacy, and his combative defenses, are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

“I’m very protective of my membership and I’m very protective of my staff — when you do harm to those two people I’ll come after you,” said Rivera, who remains president of the state Police Benevolent Association. “I make no apologies for that.”

The union says it represents more than 6,500 law enforcement officers including those in the Miami-Dade Police Department, county Corrections and Rehabilitation, and most local municipal law enforcement agencies.

Steadman Stahl, who will succeed Rivera, said he plans to strike a softer tone in his tenure. Stahl, who served as executive vice president of the union and is a sergeant in the county’s police department, added he expects “some dialogue, instead of just fighting all the time” with Gimenez’s administration.

“I think the days of throwing battery acid have passed,” Stahl said Monday after the vote.

Rivera called Stahl an “absentee vice president” but said he wished his former deputy the best. “I will tell you that I hope his approach works,” he said, adding, “if you’re afraid of controversy, you will be eaten up alive.”

Rivera developed his reputation for conflict early, organizing protests of a proposal to strengthen a civilian oversight group not long after he was elected in 1993. In the next 24 years, he aggressively defended the union and its officers, as the Miami New Times summed up: from objecting to the firing of Hialeah cops for sleeping on duty to backing an attempt to oust Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle in 2000, accusing her of being against police.

When former county commissioner Bruce Kaplan resigned in 1998 as part of a deal to avoid prosecution for mortgage fraud, Rivera supported him publicly. Kaplan had enthusiastically supported the police union, and Rivera, in a show of loyalty, attacked the county’s top corruption prosecutor, Joseph Centorino, for pursuing Kaplan. When Miami-Dade commissioner Jimmy Morales criticized the union’s tactics, Rivera directed the union’s lawyer to file a public records request for Morales’s phone records and messages, the Herald reported.

When a Hialeah police officer with a history of being fired and reinstated fatally shot an unarmed man from behind in 2002, Rivera defended him too, pinning the controversy on local politics. When another Hialeah police officer – union representative Rick Fernandez – was fired from the city’s force for his role in a fatal shooting in 2013, Rivera called for an appeal and suggested the move was retaliatory, citing a second cop involved who was not fired and later received a promotion.

After Gimenez was elected the county’s top politician in 2011, Rivera warned residents that they would need to “buy firearms” under a Gimenez plan to cut officer jobs that did not materialize. He compared the mayor to “herpes — the ‘gift’ that keeps giving” in a union newsletter, and called him a “terrorist” after the county let go of two police videographers.

In 2015, he suggested that the county mayor’s body-camera plan was a play for black voters’ support, calling him “so desperate to try and gain favor in the African-American community” in a television interview with Gimenez’s challenger. About 40 people protested the remarks, demanding Rivera apologize.

Rivera was also unconventional about how he conveyed his message: In 2014, he started a twice-monthly radio show the association described in a press release as “racy and thought provoking.” Last year, the association commissioned a song from Grammy Award-winning singer Jon Secada to promote police relations with the community.

When Stahl, his former deputy, challenged him for the position of union chief, Stahl wrote that “the PBA compass has become fogged and change is needed. … We have gone from having many voices to having just one, and when that one voice will not allow others to speak, be heard, or have an opinion, that is a sure sign of failure,” he wrote.

Rivera objected to the characterization, calling it a political strategy.

“I’ve never shut down ideas or anything,” he said. “He had fewer achievements in the past 15 years he’s been here. I’ve had incredible success in the last 25 years.”

But, he insisted, he hopes Stahl will succeed. “If he fails that means my members fail,” he said. “I want this organization to succeed.”

“They deserve the leadership that they elected,” he added. “I support that.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.