Despite Decades of Corruption Allegations, Is the Riviera Beach Police Department Clean?

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In 2009, the most recent year Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics are available, Riviera Beach and its two closest neighbors, Lake Park and Magnonia Park, had the highest crime rates in Palm Beach County, topped only by the impoverished, sugar-farming town of Belle Glade. In Broward County, only the wide swath of areas covered by the Broward Sheriff's Office had a crime rate higher than Riviera's. Tucked between the glittering condos of West Palm Beach and the sprawling beige suburbia of Palm Beach Gardens, Riviera Beach is the rare South Florida coastal city that begs comparisons to South Detroit.

Its 36,000 residents straddle fault lines of race and class. Jim Crow hung on here for a long time, and much of the town feels like it's frozen in 1971 — the year a riot broke out over integration at Suncoast High School and voters elected the first black-majority City Council. The population on the mainland of Riviera Beach is largely black and poor; just 50 years ago, the narrow streets were unpaved ruts of sand and dirt without electricity. But across the Intracoastal Waterway is another piece of the city: lily-white Singer Island, home to multimillion-dollar mansions and most of Riviera Beach's tax base.

Some people call Riviera Beach "the raw" or the "Wild West." And the 120-officer Police Department reflects that sense of chaos.

"It's almost unbelievable in law enforcement," says one former Riviera Beach cop who has moved on to a different job in the field. "It's crazy there."

The city's first black police chief went to prison in the '80s for taking bribes from an informant. Since then, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and the local State Attorney's Office have launched several corruption investigations of the department. Over and over again, their inquiries have focused on one high-ranking officer, Assistant Chief David Harris. But somehow, the allegations against him never stick.

With 31 years on the squad, Harris is said to be the king of the Riviera Beach police fiefdom. Known as "Curly Top" for his mop of brown hair, this burly, unpolished cop has outlasted a revolving door of chiefs above him. As an administrator, he could easily stay behind a desk, but he responds to every hot call, working 15- to 18-hour days to make sure he knows about every important case, the ex-cop says.

Those who are close to Harris get shielded from punishment, while those who are not consider him a bully. Complaining about Harris is not a good career move, insiders say.

"Nobody can ever really come forward, because they're in fear of retaliation," says the ex-cop, who did not want his name printed.

In the mid-1990s, the FBI looked into several corruption allegations in Riviera Beach, including accusations that a sergeant was involved in drug trafficking and that Harris, then a lieutenant, was aware of the crime. Harris emerged from the inquiry unscathed. But two Riviera officers who helped the FBI later testified in federal court that they faced retaliation for ratting out Harris.

"The corruption is still there," Lt. Kathy Donatto, a Harris critic, told reporters at the time. "The same people are allowed to do the same thing."

By 2000, Harris had been promoted to assistant chief when the FDLE launched a new, wide-ranging investigation focused on him. When the owner of a local auto repair shop was arrested for fraud, he accused Harris and other officers of targeting him so they could seize his business. As the FDLE started digging, the shop owner and others produced a litany of allegations against the Police Department, nearly all involving Harris. This time, the accusations resembled an episode of The Sopranos. Accusers said that Harris shot and killed a man, stabbed another man to death, put a contract on the shop owner's life, raped a woman, and shook down drug dealers, taking payoffs in exchange for not arresting them.

The FDLE spent two years investigating these claims and interviewing witnesses, police officers, and the alleged victims. Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach County state attorney, was friendly with Harris. To avoid the appearance of bias by the local office, Gov. Jeb Bush assigned the Broward State Attorney's Office to the case.

But by the fall of 2002, investigators were unable to verify any of the claims against Harris. Meanwhile, a scandal — the lead FDLE agent on the case had an affair with the repair-shop owner's daughter — further compromised the case. The investigation was closed, with no charges filed against Harris.

That year, Riviera Beach got a new police chief, Clarence Williams. He told the media he was happy the FDLE had given his top brass a "clean bill of health."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab