In Depth

High-profile cop problems hit Hialeah Police Department

The jokes came easy when a Hialeah police sergeant blamed his girlfriend’s pimp for setting him up when he was arrested on cocaine charges in April.

But it’s no laughing matter that his arrest follows a string of headline-grabbing incidents involving Hialeah cops during the past few years.

There was a husband-and-wife police team charged with illegally selling hundreds of guns. A detective involved in an accident that killed a 21-year-old Miami Dade College student, the daughter of a Miami-Dade School Board member. Two school traffic cops who were fired — one for allegedly drinking outside the school and the other for not reporting it.

And then there’s the latest: Hialeah Sgt. Tomas Muñoz’s arrest last month on charges that he had “several crack rocks” on a nightstand table in the Ernesto Motel on West Flagler Street, near the Magic City Casino. Muñoz, a 15-year-veteran of the Hialeah PD, was arrested at 2:50 a.m. and was in the room with an unidentified female.

He was charged with possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. After he posted a $6,000 bond, Muñoz, who could not be reached for comment, told TV reporters that his girlfriend’s pimp set him up. His arraignment is set for May 28.

Tony Luis, a Hialeah police sergeant and union representative, worked with Muñoz on patrol for years. Luis said Muñoz, who has since resigned, was a superstar officer for years before his personal life took a turn. He said Muñoz kept to himself and over the past few months seemed preoccupied.

“He was a hard worker and great cop who fell on bad times,” he said.

Muñoz’s case is one of several high-profile episodes involving the Hialeah Police Department over the past two years. Indeed, even the former mayor of Hialeah has been in the news. Julio Robaina, and his wife, Raiza, turned themselves in Friday to federal law enforcement officials after they were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of income tax evasion, making loans at sky-high interest rates and failing to report secret cash payments.

On the issues involving the police department, Mayor Carlos Hernandez referred requests for interviews to Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velazquez, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Luis and others familiar with the department have said it’s not unusual for a large department serving a blue-collar community to have occasional issues.

“Ninety-nine percent of the officers are good officers,” said former Hialeah Police Chief Mark Overton, now the Miami Beach deputy police chief. “You always have that 1 percent.”

Among the “1 percent”:

• In December, Hialeah police officer Rafael Valdes was indicted on gun-trafficking charges. According to the indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach, Valdes and his wife, Tammy, a retired police officer in Golden Beach, illegally sold at least 600 guns over seven years. They are accused of selling the weapons over the Internet and at gun shows throughout South Florida. Authorities seized five rifles, four shotguns and 38 handguns from the couple’s home. Eleven law enforcement agencies, including the Hialeah Police Department, helped with the investigation. The case is ongoing. If convicted, each faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Valdes, if convicted, would face an additional 10 years and another $250,000 for lying about the sale of a weapon, according to the indictment.

• In October, Hialeah Detective Raul Samaria was involved in an accident that killed Andrea Castillo, the 21-year-old daughter of Miami-Dade School Board member Susie Castillo. Andrea Castillo’s boyfriend, Marco Barrios, was driving the SUV that collided with Samaria’s police cruiser at East Ninth Court and 49th Street at 9:45 on a Friday night. In a matter of days, the department investigated and concluded Barrios had caused the crash after running a stop sign. The families of Barrios and Castillo have sued the city, contending the officer was speeding. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is investigating.

• Last summer, the department fired two school traffic officers, Mario Hernandez and Mari Del Diego, working at M.A. Milam K-8 Center in Hialeah. Hernandez was dismissed for allegedly drinking on the job and Del Diego for not reporting the incident. City officials decried the officers’ alleged actions at the time. “Employees who are not giving their full capacity do not deserve to work for the citizens of Hialeah,” Hernandez told El Nuevo Herald in June. At the time, the two maintained their innocence.

During Memorial Day weekend 2011, three Hialeah officers, working with Miami Beach police, were involved in the shooting and killing of a 22-year-old man at around 4 a.m. on Collins Avenue during Urban Beach Week. Police have said Raymond Herisse, from Boynton Beach, refused an order to pull over while speeding on Collins. Police fired more than 100 rounds during the shootout. Herisse, who died on the scene, was shot 16 times, according to autopsy reports released earlier this month. Three bystanders were also wounded. Prosecutors are investigating whether the officers’ shootings were justified.

As part of covering Urban Beach Week, the Miami Beach Police Department mobilizes hundreds of officers, including those from other police departments. The city also keeps cars off Ocean Drive, turns Collins into a one-way street and sets up license plate scanners on the causeways.

“Unfortunately, there may have been a misstep with the plan, as far as controlling traffic,” said Overton, the former Hialeah chief and current Beach deputy chief.

Overton said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on the current state of Hialeah’s department, though he said he was proud of his five-year tenure there.

Luis, the union representative, said Hialeah has always had a reputation for being the “Wild West” — a perception he feels is an oversimplification for the city of nearly 230,000.

A 15-year veteran of the department, Luis said he’s seen the number of police officers in the department shrink while the city’s population has risen. Hialeah, like other cities in South Florida, has contended with lower property tax revenues in recent years, resulting in budget cuts.

Luis said the police department has 293 officers, down from its pre-recession peak of about 380.

“We’re working with less, and we’re asked to do more,” Luis said.

Tony Sanchez, who previously served as Opa-locka deputy chief and currently teaches criminology at Miami-Dade College, said it’s fair to wonder whether the department is in good shape after the number of high-profile cases.

“I think that’s always a complicated topic that never has an easy answer to it,” he said.

Overall, he said, evaluating a department involves taking a look at the whole picture, including hiring practices, required training and whether or not there’s an early warning system in place to identify problem officers. According to a 2001 research paper on early warning systems published by the U.S. Department of Justice, a department can identify problem officers by monitoring factors like citizen complaints, firearm-discharge and use-of-force reports, lawsuits, resisting-arrest incidents, and high-speed pursuits and vehicular damage.

Sanchez said it’s important to note that the police were “effective and aggressive in policing themselves” in the gun trafficking and cocaine cases.

He has a high opinion of the department stemming from when he was with the Opa-locka department and in teaching Hialeah officers in his criminology courses.

“Given the size of the department, given the diversity of the community, I don’t think it’s unusual at all,” he said.

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