Policing the police

Roberto Cruz quit the Orlando Police force after battering two people in separate incidents.

But he didn't lose his badge.

Instead, Cruz took a job as a guard at the Orange County jail, where he has developed a reputation as a hot-head and has drawn a federal lawsuit for allegedly beating an inmate.

Brutal, incompetent or corrupt police in Florida face internal affairs investigators, lawsuits, review boards -- even criminal prosecution. The state can "decertify" cops and jail guards, revoking their certificate -- their license to be cops.

Yet violent cops often keep their careers, moving from one department to another, or from the police force to the ranks of corrections officers.

Reform is difficult because of police unions who protect the civil rights of accused cops, and because cases of corruption or brutality are hard to prove.

Cruz was an Orlando cop for three years before his battery of two people led to his resignation in 1991. At the Light Up Orlando celebration in October 1990, Cruz handcuffed a 14-year-old girl, but released her without making an arrest. In January of that year he got into a shoving match with an inmate of the Orange County Jail. He was also sued by a man who said Cruz and two other officers arrested him to silence his complaints about excessive force by the narcotics unit. That man, Bryan Booth, won a $16,000 settlement from the city in 1992.

Cruz quit the Orlando P.D. in May, 1991, just as he was about to be fired, personnel records indicate. "Within a span of 10 1/2 months, Officer Cruz, while on duty and in uniform, has twice committed prosecutable first degree misdemeanor crimes of battery," says the discipline recommendation in his 1991 internal affairs report. "The second offense was committed inside an Orange County Correctional facility and witnessed by corrections personnel. Such illegal acts are unquestionably conduct unbecoming an officer and, being viewed by non-members, have adversely affected the reputation of the Department."

Despite this, in November, 1993, Cruz landed a job as a corrections officer at the Orange County jail.

Orange corrections officials who hired Cruz "would not have known anything about" his record at OPD "unless it had resulted in a criminal charge," says Orange County jail spokesman Allen Moore. "And I'd refer you to OPD because, at the time, they were doing our background investigations."

Today there is a $7 million federal lawsuit pending against Cruz and Orange County, the plaintiff -- inmate Desmond Morgan -- claiming that on August 29, 1995, Cruz beat him without provocation, causing permanent injury. Although an internal investigation found that Cruz displays a pattern of losing his temper and battering inmates, he was not found to have used excessive force in this case. He was issued a written reprimand and required to attend remedial interpersonal communications and defensive tactics classes.

In taped statements for the 75-page internal investigation, Cruz claims Morgan, serving time for armed robbery and in the jail for a post-conviction hearing, displayed a defiant attitude during a pat-down search. Cruz put Morgan in an isolation cell, and when he asked for Morgan's sandals, Morgan refused. When Cruz moved to handcuff Morgan, Cruz says Morgan scratched his face. Cruz says he struck at Morgan with his fist, then took him to the floor to try to get control of him.

Morgan claims Cruz took a highlighter pen from him, and when Morgan asked what he was doing, Cruz "struck me in my chest and he said ‘Whatever the fuck I want to.' " He says Cruz used racial slurs throughout their encounter and attacked him with a pair of handcuffs held in a manner resembling brass knuckles. He claims he merely defended himself against the attack. He says Cruz tackled him so that his head hit the toilet, causing permanent nerve damage to his legs.

Ansel Brown, the corrections officer who assisted Cruz, could not corroborate either version of the encounter, but said he tried to get his fellow corrections officer to back off -- even pulled him off the inmate. Brown told investigators that Cruz "was ... basically trying to apply pain."

Sgt. Steve Pierce, who conducted the investigation, asked Brown what the need was for Cruz to apply force.

Brown: "There was none. That's why I told him to back out."

Pierce asked if Brown has seen Cruz behave this way in other incidents. Brown replied that Cruz has a habit of pulling his handcuffs out to threaten inmates.

Pierce: "Does he say, hey, I got handcuffs here? Or worse? ..."

Brown: "Worse."

How does a cop who quits the force under a cloud walk into a corrections job?

"That's not uncommon," says Rick Courtemanche, general counsel for the Florida Commission on Standards and Practices, the state agency with the power to revoke an officer's certificate. Courtemanche says that until last year, it was common for police and corrections officers to quit their departments before they could be fired, with the understanding that any internal affairs investigations would be closed so that the officer could evade further scrutiny. The state recently changed the rules to force local departments to complete their internal investigations -- and turn them over to the FDLE for review -- even if the officer quits the force. "That was a possible loophole," he concludes.

There are others.

For example, the commission has long complained about the amount of time it takes police agencies to turn over the records of misconduct cases, says Altamonte Springs Police Chief William Liquori, who has served on the commission for the past 10 years. Because the commission requires a higher standard of proof to discipline an officer, stale cases are losers. Witnesses forget, or disappear.

And even when the commission does get cases, it appears to be going easier on bad cops today than it did 10 years ago.

In 1988 for example, more than 76 percent of the cases brought before the commission resulted in decertification. Last year, that number was less than 62 percent. For the five years ended in 1992, the decertification rate was 75.3 percent. From 1993 through 1997, the decertification rate was just 57.3 percent.

"There are several reasons for that," Courtemanche explains. "We had a backlog of cases, where people were disputing the facts. We had to settle them to get rid of the backlog."

The backlog has been cut from about 400 in 1995 to about 200 today. Courtemanche says the lower decertification rates are misleading because during the high volume years, "a lot of them were borderline cases, they shouldn't have been filed in the first place."

But there is another reason decertification rates dropped. In 1990 the commission adopted a new category of finding: probation. Only six officers got probation that year, seven the following. But in 1993 the number of cops on probation shot to 59 -- 13 percent of the total cases reviewed. The number more than doubled the next year, to 128. Probation rates peaked at 27 percent of all cases in 1995. In short, as public policy makers and police groups called for a "get tough" approach to crime, the commission that oversees police crime got more lenient.

And the leniency may be growing. In order to reduce paperwork further and remove the impression -- long a concern of police unions -- that the commission's actions amounted to a "double jeopardy," last year the state legislature decreed that, in cases where a police department disciplines an officer within the guidelines set forth by the state commission, the commission cannot punish the officer further. Instead it issues a "Letter of Acknowledgment" to the officer's file, indicating the case has been reviewed.

Courtemanche says letters of acknowledgment exist in part because police agencies don't like to lose officers over "minor" incidents. "The case might be battery -- he gets in a bar fight," Courtemanche says. "The penalty for a battery is suspension, and if his agency gives him three days off with pay, at that point he'd be entitled to a letter of acknowledgment from the commission, and we would take no further action."

Although decertification rates are creeping back up, there is evidence that the system still does not curb some of Florida's most dangerous officers. Christopher Delabar was an Orange County Deputy for 15 years, earning commendations and the respect of his peers -- and reprimands for clubbing a suspect and firing his weapon unnecessarily. He fired his gun by accident once and shot at a moving vehicle, drawing a 30-hour suspension. He shot a fleeing carjack suspect named John Powell in May of 1997, and he killed a violent suspect named Heriberto Valentin during a struggle that August.

A sheriff's internal review found Delabar acted properly in the Valentin case, but violated policy on the use of deadly force by shooting Powell in the back. Although the Orange County Sheriff's Department has seen 40 deputies decertified during the past 10 years, it was reportedly the first time in 15 years the department had found a deputy at fault in a shooting.

But he was not decertified.

The FDLE found "no cause" to pursue a disciplinary procedure against Delabar for either excessive force or violations of moral character standards, Courtemanche says. Delabar resigned from the sheriff's office on April 15.

Orange County jail officials pride themselves on their facilities' low incidence of violence relative to other jails, spokesman Moore says, and a 1997 study by UCF researchers supports his claim.

And Moore notes that the average corrections officer in the jail's main building uses force to control inmates between two and five times a year. That Cruz was involved in three uses of force during the summer of 1995 would not be unusual.

Morgan is a jailhouse lawyer with a penchant for filing suits. His legal reasoning is routinely dismissed from the courts. Attempts to interview Morgan in prison were thwarted by state corrections officials. Cruz declined to be interviewed.

Liquori says the system works well, and continues to improve. Cases like that of Cruz, he says, work out in the fullness of time. "Isn't that sad, but, that's life. I hate to say it," Liquori muses. "The guy quits, he gets a job as a corrections officer ... if he does the same thing, sooner or later he's going to come before us."

The FDLE has one complaint on file regarding Cruz -- an aggravated battery of an inmate at the Central Florida Reception Center in 1992. The case was opened -- and closed -- in 1996.

The department found "no cause" for a hearing before the commission.


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