Love & Loathing

A routine traffic stop led to Pahokee's own Rodney King incident. Too bad there was no videotape.

"The Pahokee Police Department is full of rejects," declares Ulrik Williams, a 30-year-old who sports a red Nike skullcap and flashes several gold teeth as he speaks.

Williams' assessment is not idle criticism but an observation that even police brass have acknowledged.

"They get tossed from five other places and then come here," Williams says.

An encounter with police left Love bruised, swollen, and broken. He requires surgery to repair a shattered bone around his eye.
Sharon Love Kinsler
An encounter with police left Love bruised, swollen, and broken. He requires surgery to repair a shattered bone around his eye.
Faced with numerous complaints about the city's police, Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser pressed the city manager to intervene, and the police chief lost his job.
Colby Katz
Faced with numerous complaints about the city's police, Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser pressed the city manager to intervene, and the police chief lost his job.

A supervisor with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Williams is still stinging from a run-in with the cops last fall, when he was on the way home from work in his white car. Unfortunately for Williams, the police were looking for the same color car involved in a shooting when they stopped him north of town.

One of the cops told Williams he was going to take him to jail because his "mouth is too smart," Williams says. "You mean to tell me, I'm 30 years old and you're going to disrespect me, and I'm supposed to say, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir'?"

"No," interjects Adrian Walker, who's sitting nearby. "We ain't in the segregation days no more."

Pahokee's police force has indeed long been a troubled one, partly because it's not a department that draws the cream of the crop. In June 2000, the city hired Gary Frechette as police chief, despite the fact that he'd been fired as a captain with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office over allegations that he'd had an affair with a subordinate officer.

Two and a half years later, Frechette quit after accusing his top officer, Capt. Timothy Kenney, of selling department weapons for personal profit and using charity-drive money as a "slush fund" for officers. Kenney claimed that Frechette had misused a $13,000 federal grant. No criminal charges were filed against either, but the imbroglio left the Pahokee Police Department leaderless for months.

Adding to the town's administrative disarray, Pahokee City Manager Jim Smith quit in February 2003 after less than three months on the job. His replacement, Vincent Finizio, recommended that the City Commission hire the Sheriff's Office to police the city. That idea went nowhere, but Finizio did: Under a hail of public criticism over his aggressive approach to code enforcement, he also left the job after only three months.

In the wake of these events, Rafael Duran, then a youngish 50, returned to his hometown to become police chief in August 2003. Lantern-jawed, with finely coifed graying hair, speaking softly in a coffee shop in the rough-and-tumble Westgate neighborhood of West Palm Beach where he started his career as a patrolman, Duran recalls his rise and fall as Pahokee's top cop. He worked for years with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, as everything from detective to hostage negotiator. He resigned in 2000 for an unsuccessful run for sheriff, after which he figured his time as a cop was over.

Pahokee had always held a special place in his heart. He and his family had arrived there on Thanksgiving Day in 1960, ten days after fleeing Cuba. His father had been in the sugar business in Cuba, so the move out west to the cane fields was a natural. Pahokee then, Duran recalls, was straight out of a scene from American Graffiti, busy streets and a citizenry that thrived on the agricultural jobs of those premachinery days.

But that era was long gone when Duran took on the top job with Pahokee's Police Department. Unemployment in town is a chronic plague, usually hanging around 20 percent. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection is among the highest in the state, and the town's major employer during the early 1990s, the Everglades Regional Medical Center, closed in 1998.

"I knew about all the trials and tribulations of Pahokee," Duran says. "Pahokee has been one of those communities where things are different. It does its own thing." Becoming chief, he felt, was a way of giving back to the town that gave him and his family a chance for a new life many years ago.

What he found was not promising. "I came into a department that, really, had been decapitated: sergeants, lieutenants, and chief, literally gone. There was no morale. They had no sense of value." Duran began rebuilding, instituting new operating procedures, bringing the department up to the standards of the Sheriff's Office.

"It was a struggle from day one," he recalls. "Lack of funds, trying to recruit officers. As much as I hate to say it" -- he sighs, carefully choosing his words -- "the majority of officers there all had some sort of blemish on their records -- a bad driving record or been cut loose by another agency because they didn't meet the standards. I interviewed each person, and I'd give them a chance. I'd tell them, 'If you don't make it in Pahokee, you won't make it anywhere. This is your last-ditch effort. You've got to change who you are. You've got to see that something in your background made you go askew. Now it's time to change. '"

Duran's view of the city was analogous: It had gone astray, but with some serious attention, it could get back on the right path. "I always said that one of the solutions for Pahokee is to clean up certain areas," he says. "You can't keep this area clean and let this one go to hell. If you've ever been through what I call the 'night life' there, well, it's everything from drug-dealing to prostitution to stolen merchandise. It's incredible what goes on in just a three-, four-block area, the Rardin Avenue area. The majority of calls in Pahokee were there -- a good 75, 80 percent were from the Rardin area, the black community."

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