Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Miami Beach cops’ racist emails, texts are breach of public trust

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami Beach Police Chief, Dan Oates, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at press conference regarding inappropriate emails by the Miami Beach Police Department Thursday May 14, 2015.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami Beach Police Chief, Dan Oates, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at press conference regarding inappropriate emails by the Miami Beach Police Department Thursday May 14, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I wouldn’t classify as “juvenile behavior” the actions of the Miami Beach police officers who shared brazenly racist emails, texted while in training asking for nude pictures, and may have unlawfully sent out the autopsy photo of a black man who died in a hail of police bullets.

Nor do I think that the indulging of a “locker room mentality” under former Police Chief Raymond Martinez begins to explain why all of this offensive — and at least in one case, criminal — behavior was allowed to go on at the Miami Beach Police Department.

I know that State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, speaking about the issues Thursday, didn’t mean to minimize the harm caused by the actions of these officers now under investigation when she characterized their actions in those terms. But semantics matter.

Racism is not juvenile behavior. It’s despicable adult behavior that seeks to reduce the worth of human beings and should have no place at all in a police force. That’s the clear message that needs to be sent.

If any real change in policing culture is ever going to take root, let’s start by calling the collective behavior of the 16 officers involved in various offenses what it is — a serious breach of the public’s trust at a time when this country has plenty of reasons to mistrust police.

What these officers did undermines the cornerstone of police work, which requires cooperation from the community that they’re supposed to serve and protect.

“Acts like these reduce the legitimacy of an agency,” Raimundo Socorro, director of the School of Justice at Miami Dade College, told me Friday. “One of the things they know from the academy is that racist emails — and anything degrading to another individual — is not tolerated. They learn that from day one, and we have removed students for making derogatory comments about a race or a culture.”

The police academy’s lessons on the art of practicing basic, human decency, however, seem to have been lost on these officers, who now share the dubious honor of joining the South Florida Hall of Shame along with the three officers of the Fort Lauderdale police department recently fired for sending racist emails.

The Beach officers used city email and Internet access to propagate the art of hate by sending demeaning “memes” about blacks, women and undocumented immigrants.

And what Major Angel Vasquez allegedly did was aptly characterized by Miami Beach’s new police chief, Dan Oates, as “disgraceful, criminal behavior.” Vasquez sent to people outside the police agency the autopsy photo of driver Raymond Herisse, who was killed by Miami Beach police in a controversial shooting during Urban Beach Weekend in 2011.

For a change, in this department with a history of police misbehavior, there’s a chief who is doing the right thing, addressing the issues firmly, expeditiously and in public. Transparency is essential to restoring the public’s trust. There needs to be deep and conscious change inside a culture where such misbehavior seems to be so prevalent.

Did these fools not know how easy it is to track down one’s footprint on the Internet? Don’t these officers know that investigators use social media to track down criminals and that they dissect records on computers to solve crimes?

Or was it that they thought themselves above the law?

“Above the law — and stupid,” Socorro says.

Indeed.

Even juveniles and locker-room jocks know better.

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