Miami Beach's Troubled Police Force Pays Officers in the Six Figures

While patrolling Miami Beach, Officer Manuel Chorens wouldn't stand out. He has a round, fleshy face and an ample belly stretching the front of his blue uniform. His hair is streaked with white; his jet-black eyebrows are prominent over a flat nose.

Maybe he has pulled you over. Maybe you have passed him at CVS, where until recently he worked late-night shifts. You probably don't remember him.

But Chorens has secrets. For one, he's rich. In 2008, he pulled in $175,651.84.

Illustrations by Pat Kinsella
Illustrations by Pat Kinsella

Also, he's a crook.

In August 2008 at the CVS on Lincoln Road — a drugstore blocks from the beach where hordes of tourists buy flip-flops and sunscreen — managers noticed goods disappearing from the shelves. They began watching the 14-year veteran cop. Soon they saw Chorens, who had been paid tens of thousands of dollars to protect the store, filling plastic CVS bags and stashing them in the security room in back. More than $5,000 worth of stuff went missing.

A CVS investigator decided to dig a little deeper. He noted the time each night when Chorens showed up for his shift and when he clocked out. The hours didn't add up.

So someone from the store called Miami Beach Police Department internal affairs investigators, who poked around some more. Sure enough, they found that Chorens was blatantly cheating CVS. Night after night, he'd arrive around 8 p.m. and stay until 10 or 11. Sometimes he didn't even show up. On his pay sheets, though, he claimed six or seven hours at the drugstore.

Internal investigators found video footage of Chorens stuffing bags and taking them home. Still, they exonerated him of theft charges.

This past September, however, Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega quietly suspended Chorens for 30 days for falsifying his hours.

Noriega's force has more secrets. A New Times investigation has found that 200 officers — 54 percent of the 367 nonexecutive cops — made six figures last year. One of them raked in almost $214,000, more than the chief or the Beach's mayor. A sergeant earned just under $230,000 a few years ago; that's about equal to Vice President Joe Biden's annual salary.

It gets worse. The Beach force, which patrols an idyllic strip of sand relatively free of blight and gang violence, is not only the best paid in the region but also among the most troubled. Some examples:

• Officer Eric Dominguez, who pulled in $128,853 last year, nearly killed four motorcyclists while he was driving a city-owned car and abused sick time.

• Sgt. Jerome Berrian, who recently made $225,065 in one year, was accused of domestic violence and reprimanded for sleeping on the job.

• Officer Eliut Hazzi, who earned $108,371, has been accused of harassing gay men and abusing a shop owner on South Beach.

• Two other top earners — Sgt. Steven Feldman ($190,655.38) and Officer John Pereira ($133,842.85) — repeatedly harassed a pair of Arab officers, according to a lawsuit and an internal complaint.

• Officer Richard Anastasi, who earned $146,223.46 before resigning in December, was charged just last week with kidnapping a man and torturing him with threats of violence to try to extort $100,000 from him.

The department also faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that officers systematically abused gay men near Flamingo Park. Another civil suit alleges top brass irresponsibly covered for a drug-addled officer who killed two men in four days. And a third accuses leaders of discriminating against an Arab-American reserve officer.

Many Beach cops, of course, earn their money working long, honest hours keeping the peace among SoBe's sweaty crowds of drunken visitors. Few other districts in America balloon from 80,000 workday residents to nearly 300,000 revelers on weekends, police leaders point out. The force is understaffed by a few dozen cops, they say, which leads to at least six weeks of forced overtime annually for most officers.

"We're underappreciated," says Sgt. Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. "There's no other force in the country that deals with the influx of tourists every single weekend that we have."

Adds Assistant MBPD Chief Raymond Martinez, "MBPD salaries are consistent with other large agencies in the South Florida area."

There's little question, however, that the combination of big money and little oversight is thinning Beach residents' wallets and risking their safety. Officers working massive overtime have fallen asleep in patrol cars and made life-threatening mistakes. And unless city leaders, who for decades have caved to powerful unions' demands, can rein in police pensions, each and every homeowner in Miami Beach could be looking at more than $450 in new taxes next year to help fill a $30 million budget gap.

"I certainly didn't realize our police officers were making so much money," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower says. "Most people are in a state of mind right now where they [will probably] think those kinds of salaries are just out of control."

The list of sworn officers making six figures goes from ordinary beat cops to sergeants to lieutenants. It includes 200 names, although 26 are blacked out because police who work undercover are guaranteed anonymity by Florida's Sunshine Law. Each cop listed — from an unnamed sergeant who pulled in $213,912, to Officer Dolores Martinez, who earned $100,049.35 — topped the six-figure mark in salary, overtime, and off-duty work between December 22, 2008, and the same date in 2009.

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Two years later, in 2013, is this still true? Because my 8-yr-old son was violently kidnapped and believed murdered ... and I am still waiting for the US government - any agency, any level,  I'm not particular which - to find his body. And return it to me for burial. And to prosecute the killer. Especially when there are rumors all over the DC / Virginia / MD area, where the kidnap / killing occured, of at least one local law enforcement individual being involved; (police or FBI who assault and then are not found out for years, is not uncommon); when the original local police reports on the kidnap are "missing," etc. And so I wait day after day after day, as a grieving mother - and this is the worst grief  - for news of my little child. and for justice. and am told, there is not enough money. there are not enough "resources." the case is too "cold." 

If we are paying police more than we are paying the US Vice President, I expect them to be good enough to find a little boy's body. Even good enough to prevent our children from being slaughtered, to begin with. there should be no crime at all, at such salaries. Because I know that social workers and teachers are not making this much. and they are the ones interacting daily, with our children. and I know that when I stop - as a mother with very very little resources of her own, because i spend everything I can spare on my child's search - to help other families, standing under a bridge here in miami, for ex., with a baby with no shoes and no food and no diapers, in this heat and humidity all day ... that maybe those getting over $200k could be stopping, too. and yet these families tell me, that no one who looks like they can afford to stop, actually stops. 

So I just thought I would ask, as a mother, WHY you would pay so much to regular officers? when so many are going without. with little children. and there is so little dedicated to children's safety, or predator apprehension. and when many professions are in risk positions,  especially in fields like intelligence, and do not receive such salaries. I have said the same thing, so that I do not appear biased, as a federal contractor, about CEO salaries. Because it is a shame and dishonor to support companies, with tax relief and tax incentives, who then pay their executives several million. 

But I will tell you what one officer responded, when i went round a block recently, and asked him for help with a homeless person in a wheelchair - he said not to worry, that such people "want" to be homeless. I hope this officer was not one of those collecting over $200k. Perhaps if you dropped police salaries down to an even $150k, you could afford to collect less, in tickets? Or could afford to support homeless children more? or could afford to look for cold cases... when each "case" is really a suffering little child, screaming and begging for their mother - if we are to believe witnesses in my son's "cold case." 

I would expect every drunk, every drug dealer, every casino male, every worthless male criminal, to be shut up in a cage forever, if these are the salary levels, here in Miami. Because if police had done their jobs - or FBI - properly to begin with, my son would still be alive.