Culture of corruption in Biscayne Park Police: ‘Way worse than I imagined’

The Village of Biscayne Park has always been known as a speed trap, but between 2010 and 2014 a handful of police officers issued bogus tickets to previous traffic offenders without pulling them over, according to Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez.

People got tickets who weren’t even driving at the time.

Around 22,000 tickets were issued in those four years, though exactly how many were bogus is unknown. The favorite charge, Martinez said — driving without a seat belt. Over 60 percent of the traffic citations from that time were dropped, he said.

Martinez addressed the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board on Wednesday, speaking for nearly an hour on findings from the ongoing investigation into Biscayne Park police conduct under the leadership of former chief Raimundo Atesiano, who infamously directed his officers to frame black people for unsolved burglaries. Atesiano was sentenced to three years in prison. Two other officers also went to prison.

According to Martinez, 2,554 individuals were affected by Atesiano’s unrealistic policy that his department solve 100 percent of crimes.

Biscayne Park is a tiny town wedged between North Miami and Miami Shores, home to just 3,000 residents. In 2008, police made just 107 arrests. Under Atesiano, the number skyrocketed, peaking at 808 arrests in 2013. By 2018, it had dropped back to 61.

Since Atesiano’s high-profile FBI arrest in summer 2018, authorities including the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, and the new chief in Biscayne Park have been working together to understand the extent of the problem and recommend solutions.

The takeaways, according to Martinez, are twofold. First, he said, the “culture of corruption” in the Biscayne Park police department has been weeded out. But the problems were significantly worse than what federal prosecutors laid out in their cases against Atesiano and the other officers.

Due to the statute of limitations, prosecutors were limited to looking at two years of police activity in Biscayne Park, 2013 and 2014. According to Martinez, 2012 was actually worse. Now, investigators are considering suspect all charges issued by Biscayne Park police officers between 2010 and 2014.

“It is way worse than I ever even imagined,” Martinez said. “In looking at all of the arrests and looking at all of the traffic citations from that time, how can you tell that something wasn’t tainted?”

The inflated crime stats range from the huge spike in traffic violations to criminal charges. According to Martinez, the department inflated numbers by piling on charges against repeat offenders — most of whom were black — often by falsifying evidence against them. Officers pressured to make arrests and issue tickets generally targeted black people, nabbing them for crimes like crossing railroad tracks outside of designated areas.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has been tasked with reviewing the cases and clearing false convictions. It’s an arduous process. According to Deputy Chief Scott Dunn of the State Attorney’s Office, only about 10 felonies have been overturned. Over 20 cases are in review.

In every case reviewed, regardless of outcome, a memo will be added to the file, explaining the decision. “We want to be as transparent about this process as possible,” Dunn said.

Dunn said that individuals interested in having a case reviewed should reach out to the State Attorney’s Office and ask for Fleur Lobree, who is the point person for the effort.

Given the difficulties involved with reviewing the evidence from each case, Martinez also recommended that the State Attorney’s Office consider administratively expunging all criminal charges for misdemeanor cases where no attorney was present. He also suggested training programs for government departments that engage with crime stats in order to identify red flags, like high closing rates for investigations.

Biscayne Park Police Chief Luis Cabrera also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, saying his department has taken steps to increase accountability in its community. That includes implementing a village resource officer and park officer program, as well as hosting community events. Many former staff members have been replaced, and the town has put an emphasis on implementing oversight procedures for officers.

The recovery process will be a long road.

“I don’t know any way we can undo the harm that we did.” Martinez said.

Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.