By Terrence McCoy
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It was a sweeps-month, hidden-camera exposé that made police departments look bad. In conjunction with an independent watchdog group called the Police Complaint Center, reporter Mike Kirsch of CBS affiliate WFOR-TV (Channel 4) presented remarkable footage of what happens when a civilian tries to file a complaint against a police officer in South Florida.
At police station after police station, undercover investigators were met with intimidation. In Lauderhill, an officer was hostile and threatening, taunting a man who simply asked for a complaint form. A Sea Ranch officer threatened to ticket a complainant's car for "improper backing." Others simply refused to hand over a form or denied that they existed.
The footage reinforced every stereotype about arrogant and uncooperative cops.
Kirsch presented the incriminating footage to Miami Police Chief John Timoney, BSO Sheriff Ken Jenne, and other law enforcement honchos. Timoney, whose station was the only one to pass the undercover test by handing over a complaint form, asserted that any police chief who didn't make a form available should be fired. Jenne, meanwhile, looked stunned by some of Kirsch's tough questions.
Some officers had another reaction. By the time Kirsch's series aired the first week of February, the Broward County Police Benevolent Association decided to do something.
Go after Kirsch.
On the BCPBA's website, a flashing icon alerted viewers to a BOLO "be on the lookout" which, when clicked, led to a warning: "Channel 4 News is... setting up officers and instigating confrontations, then filing complaints with the various police departments." Also posted was Kirsch's personal information: his date of birth, home address, and driver's license number. The bulletin was also sent to individual stations in each municipality.
"I've been in far more dangerous circumstances," says Kirsch, who has filed stories from Iraq and Afghanistan and has won numerous awards for his work. "But when you're in a civil society like the U.S. [and] you do a story on police officers and you have them start threatening you... "
Years ago, in Cicero, Illinois, Kirsch says he was pinned against his car by officers he was investigating, and he says recent events brought back that same feeling.
"I thought it was harassment," he says of the BOLO bulletin. "It's different now because I have a wife and child. I told my wife to grow eyes in the back of her head. She was kind of concerned about it."
The website's release of Kirsch's personal data is an obvious case of illegal harassment, says Alan Rosenthal, attorney for CBS-4, including the violation of state and federal laws prohibiting the disclosure of motor vehicle record data.
On Friday, March 10, Rosenthal delivered a cease-and-desist letter to the Broward County Chapter of the PBA in Fort Lauderdale, demanding that distribution of the BOLO stop and that it be removed from the website by 5 p.m. (Which it was, with an hour to spare -- but this week, the announcement was back.)
Dick Brickman, president of Broward's PBA, sounded less than apologetic about posting the BOLO. "I don't think it went too far," he said last week. "We're about to put it back on the website, but we're taking certain information off. I've been advised by our legal staff not to put it up there."
For Brickman, a retired police officer, Kirsch's credentials mean little. "These people call themselves journalists," he seethed, "but they're not reporting the news they're creating the news." Brickman says he issued the BOLO because "we wanted to alert our members that these people were out there trying to make news by setting them up."
After the CBS-4 report aired, police reacted angrily. "Mike D," a self-described "disgusted police officer," wrote a scathing e-mail to flacops.com, a statewide portal for law enforcement news.
"Reporters like Mike Kirsch don't care about news," he wrote. "They care about controversy, creating a villain, shock value, and ratings."
Brickman doesn't deny that he called the Police Complaint Center "scumbags" and believes that the news segment's entire premise that it's virtually impossible to get a complaint form at a police station was bogus.
"Who cares whether you have a form or not?" he said angrily. "I'd have taken five minutes to listen to them and realized it was just a bunch of BS. I think the police department should go after them for making a false police report!"
Also named in the BOLO was Greg Slate, a Police Complaint Center investigator based in Maryland. He arrived back in town just after the bulletin was pulled off the BCPBA website. But as he prepared for another investigation in Dania Beach on a recent afternoon, he confessed to a certain trepidation about engaging local law officers.
"It's a risk for me," sighed the tall, thin 23-year-old, who looks like a serious version of comedian Johnny Knoxville. "The police don't have any mercy for what we're doing."
What worries him about South Florida cops, he says, is that "there's so much centralized power and no oversight. And there's a real maturity issue with some of these guys."
He's referring to the scene at the Sea Ranch station, in which one officer, unaware that he was on camera, demanded Slate's driver's license. "And I'm doing everything in my power to cooperate," Slate explained. Footage shows an officer shouting at Slate, like he's trying to get Slate to make a move that he would likely regret. "You can see me try to hand it to him. At one point, our hands are about three inches apart, and he's demanding that I move it over. If someone's going to do that over some minor issue, then what would they do in a real high-pressure situation where somebody's life is on the line?"
Despite Brickman's objections, however, police stations appeared to get the message. When Slate returned to stations after the series aired, he found that all but one he visited now stocked complaint forms. (Pembroke Pines' Police Department was the exception.) Even Wilton Manors came up with the paperwork, which surprised him: "A few years ago, they detained me for half an hour and seized our equipment, so this is a huge about-face."