Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega’s last day is officially the end of December. Unofficially he’s already gone, banished by the ghosts of controversies past. After 30 years on the job, he’s leaving behind a department mired in controversy, disarray and continued bad press. The often embattled chief will be moving on to as yet unknown destinations. Here’s what his successor will step into: A city torn by the chaos of Urban Beach Week—and threatened by an even more egregious event, Freaknik, that claims it will make UBW look like a Sunday—budget-busing police pay and pension plans, an edgy and truculent police force, and an angry citizenry calling for change.
The dichotomy is that of a tightrope walker balanced precariously over a pool of piranhas with no safety net at all.
Keeping the peace in Miami Beach is surely no day at the beach. The atmosphere seethes with persons seeking “a good time” (read mayhem), and the cops face daily anything you won’t be finding in Kansas. Vacationers view the cops as the problem, while the same officers are roundly condemned by residents for not keeping the peace. It’s an unsolvable quandary that can only be handled in seemingly schizoid ways: gay-beatings, shootings, some fatal, Memorial Day madness, officers busted for pot-smoking, an inebriated wild ride aboard a department ATV leaving two hospitalized, and all in high-profile high-fidelity ready to go viral. And with the commission itself dragging the police brass under the lights, and the reprimands, and the demotions, and a police chief publicly admitting the police response to Urban Beach Week “had not been an answer”, things begin to spin wildly out of control.
The infamous scenario of a drunken cop speeding recklessly down a darkened beach with floozy in tow and mowing down a couple of tourists prompted an internal-affairs investigation that traced the problem back up the line of command. “Breakdown”, “negligence”, “neglect” were cited as troubling proof of a system gone haywire. Quick rectification put the City back into favor, although no other response would have been possible. Swift punishment left the force reeling, with rapid-fire firings, demotions and various disciplines. Accountability was seen as the good antidote to bad behavior.
Police are expected to behave with decorum and integrity at all times. If bad apples are tainting the barrel, get rid of the apples. Otherwise the public begins to view all officers with alarm and suspicion, and “uphold and protect” takes on a sinister meaning. The party-boy boys that led to the shakeup were just the tip of the iceberg; surface unrestraint belies roots of entitlement that reach throughout the department. When the public is turning away in disgust, something is wrong. Very wrong.
A concerned citizen who feared some kind of payback, drew this reporter aside. “I can fill you in on a few things happening in our South Beach neighborhood with the cops. There’s a major PR offensive with them meeting the neighbors to go on “safety walks”, and they’re being very open about crime in the neighborhood.”
“And here’s something very weird,” she continued. “Several people have told me [a commissioner] is attending the Police Academy!” Stressing the difficulty of already dealing with regular cops, she confided, “The thought of that attention-deficit, fly-off-the-handle commissioner with a gun makes me want to lock myself in a closet.”
But it’s easy to decry results in what may be one of the wildest spots on earth; still, half or more of Miami Beach officers pull a yearly six-figure-salary. With the benefits and perks, this makes a hefty package. And while a majority are honest, hardworking professionals, the ones that go rogue do so spectacularly. Citizens have no defense against a badge and a gun wielded unstably, with the City suffering the consequences. Charges against these crazed top-earners reads like a litany of the impossible committed by the improbable. Yet, the charges of kidnapping and torture; violence; extortion; hit-and-run vehicular incidents; domestic violence; lying; harassing gays and Arabs; even manipulating sick and vacation leave for profit quickly add up and cost the taxpayers millions in payouts, severance and leaves-of-absence.
The fact that the police belong to a union makes it doubly difficult to weed out the deadbeats. Negotiated stipulations in union contracts not only aim for maximal financial gain but seek the equivalent of tenure for officers. Dismissing even the obvious oddjobs can take months, even years, while the culprits draw salaries and benefits on the taxpayer dime. The benefits package of departing Chief Noreiga, who no doubt did the best he could under difficult conditions, shows exactly how the mere act of donning a uniform trumps merit.
The average resident already finds the Department filled with indifference. But it’s the out-of-all-proportion benefits package police unions routinely finagle, not to be earned but as a right, that really appall the community.
Mike Burke, cartoonist and former Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club moderator, said, “It’s apparent the loyalties of the rank and file police are directed toward the union rather than Miami Beach. Cops have remained silent in the face of continuing civil rights abuse, payroll fraud and partying on and off duty. The only solution is a top-down change at the police department.”
“Since the city is undertaking a search for a new top cop, perhaps our money will yield someone worthy of respect who uses a fresh set of eyes to clean up the mess,” agreed a nightlife habitué. “We need a new dawn at MBPD, police officers who actually respect the residents and treat the visitors well.”
Police interface with criminals in order to protect the public, a thankless task that’s very remunerative. Which doesn’t jibe with the perception that the residents do not come first.
Howard Kaufmann, President of the Association for Better Child Care, puts it down to runaway giveaway pensions and benefits during negotiations. He gives the police department a C-: “I do think this pension ‘stuff’ of the last 2 years encourages quick retirement,” he said by email.
Soon to be ex-Chief Noreiga is a case-study in point. A beneficiary of the generous Deferred Retirement Option Program “DROP” plan, for the last three years Noreiga was paid $187,000 per annum, with pension money socked away in a separate account; total: nearly $500,000, to be paid on retirement. His “survivable” $170,000 a year pension transfers to his wife upon his death and she will receive it until she dies, including the comprehensive health benefits. Underlying this generosity is the perception of mishap, that a public servant “taking a bullet” will be able to provide for their family. Critics deride this theory, stating that if the risk of getting shot is all that important then safer employment is always available. And, despite nearly a month’s absence, the chief accrued $165,000 in sick and vacation time that’s about to fall due.
With the search for a successor well underway, the question revolves around who will inherit the important post—someone from inside or outside the department? It’s what ultimately the decision hinges on, although no hire is final until approved by the Commission, which won’t pick the matter up till March. The vetting, slated to include input from business and resident at many points in the process, has already begun.
“Change can only be accomplished by hiring a police chief from outside the department,” Burke says adamantly. “No one beholden to current personnel. It’s imperative the mayor and commissioners make clear to the city manager that this approach must replace the past policy of promotion from within.”
Night-lifer goes further, saying, “Why can’t our police force be an accredited department? It never hurts to have outside accreditation saying that our force is the best it can be, and not the laughable joke they are now.”
Commissioner Gongora is onboard with the idea of outside promotion. “In light of all the problems we’ve learned over the past several months, it’s hard for me to imagine we’d support someone from the inside,” he says flatly.
Bad news for the interim chief, Ray Martinez, who has solid support from the rank-and-file, something Noreiga did not. Although hovering near the pinnacle of power for years, Martinez never quite grasped it and, besides, he just received the equivalent of the football coach ‘kiss of death’.
“I think he’s a great guy, but I think that he is in a position that is very, very difficult,” said Commissioner Jerry Libbin. Given the fact Martinez still hasn’t even filed for the job, and given the fact of his insider status, that thud in the background might very well be the trapdoor springing under his feet.
If that weren’t enough, he is rumored to be City Manager George Gonzalez’s favorite which, these days, on the Beach, is something of a political third-rail.
Gongora’s opinion is shared by most of the other commissioners, and Martinez himself had nothing to say.
A more likely candidate is Tom Hunker, former Beach police officer and chief of the Bal Harbour Police Department. Hunker apparently has the support of most officers but he’s skittish. “We need to take a hard look at the way things have been managed,” he said. He sees a systemic instability in the department, flaws that run deep, and he wants no part of getting caught in the ruins. “This culture, I’m told, has existed for what is a long time, and that needs to get corrected.” The subtext is clear. He wants to run the department his way with no interference from meddling officials.
Whoever gets picked will have a tough job repairing the damage suffered under Noriega, and persuading residents of the Miami Beach that the culture is changing.
Gonzalez was quick to assuage anxieties about ending the culture of politics in control at Pomerance Plaza. Consensus among the officers is for stability and clear direction, from the chief, not the administration, and in burnishing a badly-worn image.
With introspection and a degree of housekeeping already begun, Noriega has gone on vacation. He claims to have left the department in better shape than he found it, lauding all the “talented law enforcement professionals” staffing the department. He has for some time applied elsewhere for a position as head of police but without success.
Noriega’s reign was marred by events that at times seemed surreal. A generally aggressive approach towards Urban Beach Weekend, which residents still insist are not tough enough, was deemed a failure. The dramatic events that unfolded showing the police riddling a car with bullets, the shots seen round the world, continues to get thousands of hits daily on YouTube. Seven police officers, including four from Hialeah, got caught in the morass. With the amount of firepower unleashed, it’s a miracle more casualties didn’t occur.
The chief’s claim of the ACLU’s “tying his hands” by coddling criminals quickly unraveled when the civil rights agency filed a suit claiming the department targeted gay men for looking “’too gay”—a turn of events that also let the air out of the City’s efforts to promote diversity friendliness. The bizarre case of an officer that killed two men in four days before being busted for a pot grow-house, took on a ludicrous, self-perpetuating quality that further damaged the City. The fact that Noriega was chummy with convicted scammer and Miami University booster Nevin Shapiro was the final nail in the coffin.
A series of emailed questions, printed in their entirety below, recently posed by fellow SunPost reporter Charles Branham-Bailey to Chief Noreiga are revealing:
Would it not be preferable if a Civilian Investigative Panel—such as the City of Miami has adopted—were established for Miami Beach?
No; I have complete confidence in my Internal Affairs Unit’s ability to investigate any complaint or allegation against any police personnel fairly, thoroughly and objectively.
Why should the citizens of Miami Beach be confident that the Department’s Internal Affairs is an appropriate / sufficient / unbiased mechanism for investigating and ruling on incidents involving possible police abuse / misconduct / overreach?
I appreciate the suggestions, but I am more than comfortable with the checks and balances I have in place because:
1.The Internal Affairs Unit works closely with the SAO’s Public Corruptions Unit on any and all matters that involve possible criminal allegations against the department’s personnel. All such cases are independently and objectively reviewed by the SAO.
2.We embrace accountability as a fundamental requirement in my administration’s organizational philosophy as reflected through an increase in disciplinary actions taken against officers proven to have committed an infraction of departmental rules and regulations.
3.We also embrace transparency as another fundamental requirement in my administration’s organizational philosophy as reflected through our CFA and CALEA dual accreditation status as well as Flagship designation.
4.We work openly and hand and hand with the community through our Community Affairs Unit initiatives, Commission appointed Police/Community Affairs Committee and the Department’s Citizen Police Academy.
5.I have diversified the Department with a cross section of personnel at just about every level.
Reform is never easy because the problem becomes apparent only when the foul roots are established, but it is possible. When Miami brought in outsider John Timoney as chief after being racked by problematic shootings, he was able to calm tensions, offer solutions, and imprint integrity onto the department. Knowing that he was in charge and expected change allowed the department to move swiftly.
Which makes the vetting process of finding a new police chief on Miami Beach indispensable. A thorough and lengthy process that invites the public into the process at crucial intervals gives the community, this time, the chance of getting it right.