Your Worst Nightmare

Welcome to Riviera Beach, home of slums, violent crime, a police department in turmoil, political hit lists, union busters, angry ex-wives, junkyard insurrections, and Zedrick Dwayne Barber, South Florida's most-investigated cop

Over the years Barber served as a firearms instructor, training officer, and public affairs spokesman; he was promoted to sergeant and then detective; he received commendations and satisfactory to excellent employee evaluations. He managed to fire his sidearm only once -- over the head of a fleeing murder suspect whom he then arrested. He spoke in churches, founded the local Police Athletic League, and wrote public-service announcements for radio designed to promote better relations between cops and the Riviera Beach populace.

While all of this might seem to point toward the fulfillment of Barber's earlier ambition -- advancement to the priesthood of American law enforcement via the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia -- that dream is long gone. A few years after Barber's resume started filling up with notable achievements, a parallel universe of darker accomplishments developed, complete with its own paper trail. Barber's private and public lives bled into one another, nothing unusual for a cop, but both lives became messy and, finally, alarming.

"A maniac with a badge," says West Palm Beach lawyer Tracy Sharpe, whose client claims Barber beat him badly enough to cause permanent spinal injury. Sharpe is seeking for his client at least $850,000 in damages from the city of Riviera Beach.

"Capable of anything," says Bettye King, an attorney representing Barber's ex-wife. Both women declined to be interviewed about Barber, citing fears for their physical safety.

"Horrendous," says a former deputy police chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, who reviewed Barber's internal-affairs paper trail. He found it to be "one of the worst negative disciplinary histories I have ever reviewed."

Lt. Steven Wiesen, one of three fellow cops or supervisors who claim Barber threatened to kill them: "When he is under a great deal of stress, he loses all perspective and control."

Tracy Sharpe is getting ready to take his sailboat to the Bahamas on vacation, and from time to time he glances out the window of his law-office conference room toward the water 14 stories below. But he keeps talking, keeps stabbing a document with his finger. This document is a road map to 10,000 pages of transcripts, legal briefs, medical records, and police incident reports. It's titled "Chronological History" and sums up why Sharpe thinks Zedrick Barber is Florida's loose cannon nonpareil.

Whatever else it is, the eight-page synopsis looks like a reporter's dream, freighted as it is with apparent abuses of public trust and holding out the opportunity to expose wrongdoing. Not oblivious to this, a friend at Baldrica Advertising & Marketing, a Palm Beach County public relations firm, offered to help Sharpe promote the story. The firm faxed information on Barber to a newspaper editor along with a note stating, "I think this is a great story about a rogue cop."

This is not the first time Barber has been the subject of a news story. "Officer On Duty Despite 20 Challenges," reads one headline from the Palm Beach Post. "Riviera Woman Accuses Officer of Hitting Her," says another.

Nearly all modern police departments have some form of internal-affairs division, a system by which complaints against police officers are investigated. Typically a detective assigned to internal affairs considers the complaint, interviews witnesses, and suggests where the truth lies and what to do about it. In Riviera Beach, as elsewhere, the final say-so rests with the chief of police.

The potential flaw in the system, of course, is that cops within the same department are put in the position of investigating each other. Analyses of internal-affairs practices -- including an award-winning 1996 report by Miami New Times -- have suggested that, while some police officers receive numerous complaints about their conduct during the course of a career, it's comparatively rare for internal-affairs investigators to rule even a single complaint sustained. In Riviera Beach, in the case of Zedrick Barber, the reverse is true: A master computer log of internal investigations shows that the department found him at fault or partly at fault at least 16 times in incidents between 1983 and 1998.

Along the way Barber received several reprimands and suspensions for falling asleep in his patrol car, missing court appearances, and getting in traffic accidents. On several occasions West Palm Beach police responded to his home to quell family disturbances in which his wife -- or, later, girlfriends -- accused him of assault.

"Barber gets involved in confrontation with Mangonia Park police officers and threatens to 'blow one of the officers' heads off,' and had to be restrained by several people," reads an entry in Sharpe's chronological history, dated May 17, 1987. "While working an overtime detail, Barber starts politicking and interfering with a union meeting," reads another, tagged February 24, 1988.

In August 1988, facing termination, Barber resigned. In January 1989 he began working as an adult case-manager at the South County Mental Health Center. After being accused of assaulting a patient, he quit and took another job as a child-abuse investigator for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. In February 1991 he again resigned after being placed on administrative leave for threatening a supervisor.

And then, in October of that year, Barber was rehired as a cop by the City of Riviera Beach.

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