How Do Bad Cops Stay in Power? Just Look at Miami.

The story of Miami Police Captain Javier Ortiz shows why it’s so hard for big cities to get rid of their most troublesome cops

10/22/2021 4:04:00 PM

The story of Miami Police Captain Javier Ortiz shows why it’s so hard for big cities to get rid of their most troublesome cops

“This is my neighborhood and I run this shit the way I want to,” police Capt. Javier Ortiz allegedly told a man who wanted to file an Internal Affairs complaint against him.

that, “many people are afraid to say that the police officers involved in the Stirling [sic] shooting were MORE THAN JUSTIFIED.”Those comments didn’t sit well with the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association’s members, composed mainly of Black officers and led by Sgt. Jean-Poix, who called Ortiz a

and pointed to his long history of citizens’ complaints.Down, but by no means outThe crescendo of complaints within the Black community, which were echoed by Black police officers, began to take a toll on Ortiz’s reputation. For years, he had brushed off any criticism with the bravado of a man who operated with impunity.

“I don’t give a fuck. My IA file is as long as this block,” Ortiz allegedly told a bar patron in 2011, according to the man’s Internal Affairs complaint in which he accused the officer of arresting him solely because he was recording another officer aggressively apprehending a suspect.

“I do what the fuck I want to do. This is my neighborhood and I run this shit the way I want to,” Ortiz allegedly told another man who said he would file an Internal Affairs complaint, which he did, in 2009. “Fuck you and Internal Affairs. I will make your life miserable as hell,” Ortiz allegedly said.

The complaints of his own colleagues, however, proved harder to brush off, especially after he gave up his city union perch in 2017. That year, Ortiz became one of the department’s five captains and voluntarily stepped down as president of the Miami lodge, although he continued to serve as the national FOP’s South Florida regional representative.

The accusations of racism — which Ortiz has repeatedly rejected — opened him up to civil rights complaints, meaning that he had to contend with more than Internal Affairs; complainants could reach out to state and federal authorities. Three Miami police sergeants — one of them Black and two Hispanic — did just that in 2018, arguing that Ortiz’s long history of brutalizing civilians, most of them people of color, should cost him his badge.

State and federal officials took the complaints seriously and vowed to investigate. Eventually, the Miami police chief placed Ortiz on paid leave, starting in January 2020.As the probe dragged on, Ortiz tried to regain his position as union president. He almost did, finishing first among three candidates in the preliminary election. But the fact that he was still on leave pending the results of the civil rights probe helped cost him the runoff this past January to Tommy Reyes, a mild-mannered Trump-supporting Republican.

Robert Buschel, an FOP lawyer who once represented Ortiz, called the investigation into Ortiz “a political hit job. They looked at all these old, unsubstantiated allegations and still found nothing. But they slow-walked it to drag it on as long as possible. This was a systemwide effort — Miami-Dade state attorney, FDLE, FBI — and there was nothing. He got the colonoscopy and the endoscopy at the same time and they couldn’t find anything.”

Indeed, many observers were struck by how little the civil rights probe into Ortiz seemed to matter to some Miami police officers. Lt. Ramon Carr, a member of the Black officers’ association who finished third in the initial FOP presidential balloting behind Ortiz and Reyes, said he was disturbed that many young officers supported Ortiz.

“It shows there’s a culture of people who don’t care about the negativity of what he does, his behaviors, his racist behaviors, his conniving ways,” Carr says. “They didn’t care because they’re like, ‘Well, he’s a good fighter. He will harm himself just to fight for me. And I’ll look past the other stuff.’ What’s that say about us? We should be scared of this. Is this what we’re supposed to be? That’s what’s disappointing about some of the cops in this department who voted for him. If they believe what he believes, then our community is in trouble.”

But Ortiz’s supporters insist he was and is a solid role model.“When you’re an active police officer serving your community in a dense urban area, you’re going to get citizen complaints.”—Al Palacio, a lieutenant with the Miami-Dade school policeAl Palacio, an FOP ally of Ortiz’s who is a lieutenant with the Miami-Dade school police, describes Ortiz as a cop’s cop who’s “charismatic, beyond smart [and] a staunch defender of law enforcement. He truly believes in this stuff. He believes in defending those officers who, for one reason or other, can’t defend themselves.”

“He’s unfairly depicted,” Palacio adds. “When you’re an active police officer serving your community in a dense urban area, you’re going to get citizen complaints.”Palacio says Ortiz stands up for “officers day in and day out wearing bulletproof vests in 95-degree weather trying to stop the wolves from getting to the sheep … Sometimes you feel, especially in the course of the past couple of years, you feel alone. You don’t feel like you have backup.”

He notes that Ortiz, who isn’t married and has no kids, nonetheless helps raise money tofight pediatric cancer.But one national FOP official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Ortiz, offered a different opinion. He said Ortiz went too far too often and, at the very least, became a national PR headache for the union.

“Ortiz is the kind of guy who can get into a fight in an empty room,” the official says. “After a decade, that gets old.”Seeking to make changesOrtiz’s return to work in March after the conclusion of the civil rights probe was a personal triumph, proof of his nine-lives endurance, but also a source of anger for the many former superiors who said they wanted to fire him but felt their hands were tied. Alfonso, the former city manager, was one. So was former Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina, who retired in February. Colina had been the chief who ordered Ortiz’s suspension for the duration of the civil rights probe.

Colina says Ortiz was saved by the extremely high bar for firings, enforced by the union-approved outside arbitrator, who has final say over dismissals. Colina says he wasn’t able to take stronger action against Ortiz because he felt the evidence wouldn’t withstand the extreme rigors of the process, and because of Ortiz’s status in the union, which would fight any attempt to crack down on him.

Colina said the arbitrator provision is especially problematic because arbitrators are “chosen in agreement with opposing counsel, and they ultimately want to keep working. So these guys are almost always 50-50 in their rulings: ‘Today, I’ll agree with the city, but tomorrow I’ll agree with the union,’ because if they’re too one-sided, they don’t get hired.”

As an extreme example of the pitfalls of arbitration, Colina points to the time he fired an officer who refused to cooperate in the investigation of a murder in which he might have been involved before joining the force. An arbitrator gave the officer his job back. Colina then

when he refused to take a drug test. The firing stuck.In another case, two officers accused of falsifying police reports werefired. One arbitrator gave one cop his job back; another arbitrator let the firing against the other officer stand.Police chief Jorge Colina speaks to the media at the Hilton Miami Downtown in January 2020. | Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

“You get a little gun shy,” Colina says of fighting against the union and its shield of contract provisions. “I don’t even call this guy in unless we are rock solid with something, because otherwise we’re just adding to their ability to say, ‘Man, he’s been called in on seven cases that normally you guys wouldn’t have even opened. It’s just that you’re going after him because you’re succumbing to community pressure, political pressure, whatever.’ And meanwhile, of course, that’s not true, but they’re clever in the way that they’ll use the [union] contract for that.”

Also, union leaders can easily argue they’re being attacked because of their role as advocates for fellow officers. Ortiz did just that, for instance, in 2014, when supervisors rapped him for missing depositions in a murder case.“I am being retaliated against because of my position in the FOP. This is a form of union busting and it effects [sic] my terms and conditions of employment for executing union business,” Ortiz wrote in an evaluation form in 2014.

Ortiz has also been the beneficiary of the police officers’ bill of rights’ “180 Day rule,” which forces Internal Affairs to wrap up investigations within six months. That rule came into play in one of the more high-profile complaints against him, after he launched a

social-media attackin 2016 against a woman named Claudia Castillo, who shot video of herself confronting a police officer from another jurisdiction.Ortiz retaliated by downloading Castillo’s personal Facebook page pictures, posting her cellphone number and pictures, and even tagging local media networks in one post that accused her of drinking alcohol while boating, according to a police investigative report.

“I’m in fear of a gang. In this case, the gang carries the badges.”—Claudia CastilloCastillo said she was called by strangers and harassed. She filed a restraining order against Ortiz, andhe was suspended with pay. (The bill of rights forbids suspensions without pay before an investigation is complete.)

Internal Affairs determined Ortiz broke the department’s rules on proper procedures and courtesy in dealing with the public, but he wasn’t punished because the investigation took more than 180 days. Colina, who was head of Internal Affairs at the time, said he couldn’t remember why the delay happened. (Colina was later accused by a fired cop in a November lawsuit of engaging

in a massive cover-upthat involved Ortiz, but Colina denies the allegation.)Castillo suspects her case, too, was part of a cover-up and says she still fears police to this day.“I’m in fear of a gang. In this case, the gang carries the badges,” she says. “You have no recourse against them. He’s a bully. He’s a cyber bully. He should have been fired for this. He should have been fired for lots of things … He was being the criminal instead of law enforcement.”

Miami police captain Javier Ortiz. | Courtesy of the Miami HeraldIn another case, in 2018, Internal Affairs investigators slow-walked a complaint that Ortiz violated departmental guidelinesby posting mocking selfiesthat included Black people being arrested.

As the 180-day clock was about to expire, an anonymous tipster complained to the Civilian Investigative Panel that the department was about to let Ortiz skate free once again, by failing to complete its investigation in time.Ortiz then showcased his ability to exploit the rules to his advantage. He availed himself of the bill-of-rights provision that allows an officer to review his entire file before offering his response to an allegation. The file Ortiz was given somehow included a copy of the official document that would formally discipline him for violating policy with the mocking selfies, a report on the incident said.

Ortiz knew of another bill-of-rights provision that would block any action until he provided his statement of defense. So outside the sight of the sergeant conducting the investigation, Ortiz signed his own reprimand form. Then Ortiz provided his defense statement. And then he filed a complaint claiming his rights were violated because he was disciplined before he provided a statement and because the 180-day clock had run its course.

The case was dropped. Ortiz wasn’t punished. But the sergeant in charge of the investigation was reprimanded and transferred out of Internal Affairs. He refused to comment. Ortiz’s critics in the department believe he was set up.Diaz, Ortiz’s lawyer, said he was unfamiliar with the case, but said that he believed “that IA department has been a joke for the past 40 years.”

Caught in a lieWhen it comes to police accountability, reformers say, no provision is as bad as the bill-of-rights rule that lets officers see all the evidence against them before making a statement. It runs contrary to common-sense investigative techniques of police, who routinely withhold information from suspects to see if their story matches up with hard evidence.

Miami lawyer Scott Srebnick says he witnessed the importance of withholding evidence when he managed to catch Ortiz lying about a client named Jesse Campodonico.Campodonico was beaten and shocked with ataser at Miami’s 2011 Ultra Music Festivalby Ortiz and three other officers. Campodonico was charged with battering police officers and resisting arrest, but a bystander’s video showed Campodonico wasn’t the aggressor, contrary to the report filed by Ortiz. Under deposition in the criminal case, Ortiz continued to stick to his official story, unaware of the existence of the video.

“If we don’t have this video, then Ortiz and his cronies would have gotten away with it and kept their story straight,” Srebnick said. “All of the statements in the response to the resistance report were flatly contradicted by the video, flatly contradicted by the video.”

Charges against Compodonico were dropped by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, which noted in its close-out memo that Ortiz’s report had “discrepancies” and was “inconsistent” with the video evidence. Srebnick asked prosecutors to charge Ortiz, but the office — which seldom charges police with crimes — declined. A spokesman for the state attorney declined to comment on the case.

Read more: POLITICO »

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