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Inside ‘The Stop-And-Frisk Capital of America’

Claims including sexual assault of a woman with mental illness to lying in reports haunt the Miami Gardens police; payouts in federal lawsuits have cost the city’s taxpayers at least $3.5 million.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo via Miami Gardens Police Department.

Last summer, Officer Roland Clarke of the Miami Gardens Police Department knew internal affairs was investigating him for having sex on duty. “Look what my side bitch did to me,” Clarke vented in an audio recording made in July and shared with The Appeal. “That ho called anonymously and said, ‘This n**** be coming to my house and fucking me on duty.’”

But in the same recording, Clarke said he was unworried about the scrutiny from internal affairs—because he had at least one officer there protecting him. “It’s a good thing Noble had my back up there,” Clarke said, referring to Sgt. David Noble. “They took care of that shit, that shit didn’t go nowhere.”

Before he joined the police department, Clarke worked as a corrections officer at the Dade Correctional Institution. On June 23, 2012, Clarke and his fellow officers allegedly placed Darren Rainey, 50, a prisoner who had schizophrenia, in a scalding hot shower for two hours as punishment. Rainey later died from complications related to “schizophrenia, heart disease, and confinement to a shower.”  Photographs show that huge portions of his skin peeled off. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office declined to charge Clarke in the case, but in January 2018 the state of Florida settled a lawsuit from Rainey’s family for $4.5 million.

In January 2014, Clarke began working for Miami Gardens police, and his troubles continued. According to his internal affairs file, he ran a red light in his police truck, crashing into a driver, and lost evidence in a homicide investigation. Then, in August of 2016, Clarke was warned by three superiors “not to pursue personal relationships while at work.” One month later, he was investigated by internal affairs for repeatedly visiting a woman’s house while on duty. Clarke denied having sex while on duty. Investigators took him at his word and closed the case, but the department handed Clarke a five-day suspension for violating its code of conduct.

About one year later, in 2017, Clarke struck up another personal relationship while on duty, the one that sparked the investigation he later bragged would “go nowhere.”

Neither Clarke nor his attorney responded to emails seeking comment.

In August 2018, officers surveilled Clarke for nearly three weeks, according to his internal affairs file. Investigators observed that Clarke rarely worked while he was on duty. Instead, he drove aimlessly around Miami Gardens and other neighboring cities, took naps in his patrol vehicle while in full uniform, circled by the residences and workplaces of female acquaintances, and went to the Miami strip club Tootsies Cabaret.

The woman that internal affairs interviewed regarding her relationship with Clarke said she saw him “six times a week during the overnight hours.” She said Clarke showed up at her house in his police cruiser, in uniform, with his police radio on, and stayed there for several hours each night. A video she provided to investigators showed Clarke leaving her residence and walking to his police car “wearing boxer shorts, socks, and his police uniform shirt” at 4:29 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2018, while he was on duty. Clarke insisted that he never had sex with the woman while on duty; he was in his underwear early that morning “because he spilled gravy on his pants.”

In October 2018, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said Clarke is “in the process required by law and collective bargaining before an officer can be officially terminated.” On Nov. 26, 2018, Chief Delma Noel-Pratt sustained 47 different violations of department policy against Clarke and recommended termination. However, a staff list of current Miami Gardens police officers shared with The Appeal on Dec. 28, 2018, still lists Clarke as an employee.

Asked why Clarke remains on the list of department employees and if he is still being paid by the city, Miami Gardens spokesperson Tamara Wadley said “as is the case with the vast majority of municipalities, an officer’s disciplinary action is dictated according to the collective bargaining agreement and this process is ongoing.”

But Clarke is not the only city officer with a long history of misconduct allegations. Another officer, Javier Romaguera, has faced many accusations, including lying about a car accident and sexually assaulting a woman with mental illness. The cases of Clarke and Romaguera demonstrate how problematic officers remain employed in the department, even when there are multiple incidents calling their integrity into question.

A young department with a long history of misconduct

The Miami Gardens Police Department was founded in late 2007; it’s about as old as the strip club adjacent to its headquarters on Northwest 187th Street. The department has 316 employees serving a city approximately 13 miles north of Miami that is home to about 114,000 people. The department is so young because the city was only incorporated in 2003. City planners envisioned Miami Gardens as a haven for the Black middle class, but it’s now largely poor and working class, with 21.5 percent of its residents living in poverty and the median household income is $41,339.

The misconduct that has plagued the police department since its inception stems from a combination of toothless internal affairs investigations, powerful police unions, unconstitutional policy directives, and a local prosecutor’s office that is loath to bring criminal charges against police officers.

Its first chief, Matthew Boyd, resigned in 2013 amid revelations that officers were instructed to stop, frisk, and detain Black men. One man, 28-year-old Earl Sampson, was stopped 419 times from 2008 to 2013, often for trespassing at his own place of work.

In mid-February of 2015, Lavall Hall, a Black man diagnosed with schizophrenia, was tased and shot to death by MGPD officers after his mother called the police to help him in the midst of a mental health crisis. The officer who shot Hall, Eddo Trimino, was once the department’s most-sued officer; he now works for the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office. By the end of February, Boyd’s successor, Stephen Johnson, was fired after being arrested by the Broward County sheriff’s office for soliciting sex workers. After the killing of Hall and Johnson’s arrest, Miami-area hip-hop impresario Luther Campbell opined in the Miami New Times that the department should be disbanded. Johnson was replaced by Antonio Brooklen, who resigned in September 2016 amid sexual harassment allegations. In 2018, the officer that Brooklen allegedly harassed filed a federal lawsuit that claimed he made repeated unwanted sexual advances, including insisting she meet him at a strip club—where he kissed and groped her without her consent—to talk about “the hiring process.” The case was settled for $150,000.

Payouts in federal lawsuits against the police department alleging wrongful arrests, excessive force, an in-custody death, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, discrimination, and violations of Florida’s Whistle-blower’s Act have cost Miami Gardens taxpayers upward of $3.5 million. At least 22 lawsuits have been filed against the department since 2010, a review of federal court records found. Two ended with juries awarding large sums to the plaintiffs, eight were settled, four were “amicably resolved,” and one continues.

In lawsuits brought by former department employees and by victims of its stop-and-frisk policy, officers filed affidavits detailing unlawful stops and a quota system, as well as racist remarks made by officers. In a sworn declaration, one sergeant said that a major told him not to target the “old man cutting his grass” but instead “black males between the ages of 15 to 30 years old.” An investigation by Fusion found officers had stopped or arrested 65,328 people—more than half the city’s population—in a five-year period. In 2014, Gawker dubbed Miami Gardens “The Stop-And-Frisk Capital of America.”

Yet, of the 282 complaints made to internal affairs from 2007 to 2016, only 60 were sustained. According to an internal memo included in a lawsuit against the department, 79 percent of all internal investigations found no wrongdoing on the officers’ behalf.

Woman in grips of mental health crisis allegedly groped by Miami Gardens officer

Just before midnight on July 11, 2016, Miami Gardens police were called to assist a possibly suicidal woman who had left a group home and was running barefoot through traffic. The woman had a history of being hospitalized under the Baker Act, a Florida law that allows emergency involuntary mental health services and even temporary detention for people who are impaired because of their mental illness. But when officers, including Javier Romaguera, responded to the scene, they believed that she didn’t meet Baker Act criteria. A Creole-speaking officer determined that the woman, who was from Haiti and not fluent in English, was simply trying to walk to her home in a neighboring city even though was still wearing a hospital bracelet and behaving abnormally.

Romaguera then offered to drive her home. Instead, without informing his superiors, he brought her to the Stadium Hotel in Miami Gardens, used his police discount to pay for her two-night stay, told the front desk she was a victim of domestic violence (she wasn’t), and lied to the front desk clerk about state attorney’s office reimbursing him for the expense. Video shows Romaguera holding the woman’s hand as he escorts her to a hotel room and then goes inside with her for approximately 10 minutes.

That’s when Romaguera attempted to kiss her and groped her breasts, according to an internal affairs complaint as well as a lawsuit brought by the woman in federal court in April 2018. She claims that Romaguera left the room only after she began crying.

The following night, Romaguera returned to the hotel room and found the woman in a catatonic state: unresponsive and staring blankly forward, his internal affairs file shows. He decided to leave her there. The next day, hotel employees found the woman in the lobby, hiding near the elevator. She appeared scared and told them she saw zombies coming after her. This time, police who responded to calls from the hotel staff hospitalized her under the Baker Act.

On July 25, 2018, the state attorney’s office declined to file charges against Romaguera. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still investigating the incident, a spokesperson said. Roger Kobert, Romaguera’s attorney in the civil suit, said he could not comment on pending litigation, “aside from directing you to the forceful denials of the meritless allegations of wrongdoing in the civil suit, as set forth in our client’s previously filed court submissions.”

Romaguera has a long history of misconduct allegations leading up to the alleged assault in the hotel room. Before joining Miami Gardens police, he worked for the Miami Springs Police Department, where he received at least three complaints from the city’s residents. In December 2005, a Miami Springs man called the police seeking help after his irate girlfriend damaged his property and refused to leave his home. Though the man told officers he did not wish to press charges or have her arrested, Romaguera took her into custody. The man complained to internal affairs and suggested that Romaguera arrested the woman because he wanted to ask her out. He also told investigators that Romaguera called her on her cell phone after the arrest.

Romaguera told investigators that he spoke with the woman three times, and that she had simply called him for advice on how to handle her case. An internal review of Romaguera’s cell phone records contradicted his account: She called Romaguera four times on his personal cell phone, while he called her back four times. In total, the two spoke for nearly an hour—but Romaguera was not reprimanded.

Federal prosecutors assail an officer’s credibility

In 2007, Romaguera began working for the Miami Gardens police, and he continued to rack up citizen complaints. On Jan. 21, 2008, a man alleged that Romaguera cut him off while driving, followed him into his work parking lot, pulled him over, cursed at him, and gave him a ticket. Romaguera claimed he was in a rush to respond to a burglary call and the complaint to internal affairs was not sustained. But investigators never reviewed dashboard camera footage—despite departmental policy requiring all police vehicles to be equipped with audio and video recording equipment—nor did they review records to determine whether a burglary was actually in progress at the time, as Romaguera claimed.

On Oct. 25, 2009, Romaguera lied on a field contact form, claiming that he had physical contact with Earl Sampson—the man stopped hundreds of times by Miami Gardens police. On Nov. 29, Romaguera lied about being hit by a car while working off-duty at BrandsMart, a Florida retailer specializing in home appliances and electronics. After he arrested a man who tried to cash a bad check, Romaguera claimed, a vehicle driven by the man’s associates struck him. He then charged the man with multiple assaults. Surveillance footage, however, showed that Romaguera was nowhere near a car. He was given a 10-day suspension.

In April 2015, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida filed a response to a Giglio request from defense attorneys regarding Romaguera, warning “we have decided that we cannot use [him] as a witness or affiant in any of our cases.” A Giglio request is made by defense attorneys who seek impeachment evidence from prosecutors about witnesses, including police witnesses, under the 1972 Supreme Court ruling  Giglio v. United States, which held that a defendant’s due process rights were violated when the prosecution failed to inform the jury that a witness had been promised not to be prosecuted in exchange for his testimony.

In January 2016, despite the allegations of misconduct against him and a vow from federal prosecutors to never use him as a witness, Romaguera was promoted to sergeant. But that July, Romaguera was placed on desk duty after sexual assault allegations were made against him in the Stadium Hotel case.  Roland Clarke’s internal affairs file shows that Romaguera was one of the three superiors who counseled him about pursuing personal relationships in August 2016.

On Jan. 5, 2017, the police department attempted to fire Romaguera, but he filed a lawsuit in October 2018 claiming that it discriminated against him for being a Cuban man. Romaguera’s lawsuit indicates that the police union stepped in when he was about to be fired and subsequently got his termination changed to “relief of duty with pay.”

According to the lawsuit, Romaguera was terminated on Oct. 25, 2018. Yet Romaguera’s status at the department is unclear: He still shows up on the staff list. Wadley, the city’s spokesperson, would not clarify his employment status. She would say only that “an officer’s disciplinary action is dictated according to the collective bargaining agreement and this process is ongoing.”

The Dade County Police Benevolent Association is appealing Romaguera’s termination, and the state attorney has refused to prosecute Romaguera and Clarke for any of their alleged misdeeds.

Attorney Phillip Ortiz, who is representing the woman who accused Romaguera of sexually assaulting her at the Stadium Hotel, wrote in the lawsuit he filed against the officer and Miami Gardens: “Despite the city’s knowledge of Sgt. Romaguera’s playing fast and loose with the truth, the city transferred Sgt. Romaguera to the Professional Compliance Unit [also known as internal affairs] where he conducted background investigations on potential new police officers and assisted in internal affairs investigations.”

Like Clarke, who was a finalist for the Dade County PBA Officer of the Year Award one year after he was first investigated for having sex on duty, Romaguera has, according to Ortiz, “developed a history of violating MGPD policies and procedures, and yet, not only was he not fired—he was promoted.”