The word shot out on the police wire: Be on the lookout for a Ford Focus, black female at the wheel. The driver is waving a handgun at other cars.
That muggy afternoon on July 10, 2012, a Fort Lauderdale community service officer coursing through a grid of industrial streets off Sunrise Boulevard tracked the driver down to a rental agency on NW Eighth Avenue. He radioed for backup.
Carla Flower didn't even have a chance to get out of the parking lot. The 28-year-old black woman with glowing amber eyes was at the agency to swap out a car with underinflated tires. But before she could drive off, two Fort Lauderdale Police officers ordered her and two friends out of the replacement vehicle.
The cops never found a handgun. But according to a police report, they did turn up "two small white rocks" that would later test positive for crack cocaine.
It seemed just another coke bust. But it wasn't. Charges would later be dropped after Flower claimed the drugs had been planted and the officers had showered her with racial slurs. "You're a crackhead nigger," one of the cops had yelled. "You're a crackhead whore." In the squad car, Flower says, the abusive talk continued. "Shut the fuck up now, nigger."
"They were just calling me names that you would never expect," Flower says today. "I felt like I was an animal to them."
It turns out, the racist outburst was no outlier. The officers who stopped Flower — James Wells and Christopher Sousa — recently lost their jobs, along with two other Fort Lauderdale officers, thanks to racist text messages and videos.
Three weeks ago, Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley and Mayor Jack Seiler announced the firings of Wells, Sousa, and Officer James Holding. Officer Alex Alvarez had quit after the racist messages were discovered.
In total, 74 incidents came under IA review. Fifty-six of those included use of force, and more than 40 involved black suspects.
Local media have focused recently on the firings as bad actors caught red-handed. But the scandal currently engulfing the Fort Lauderdale PD spreads far beyond off-color jokes and racist videos. New Times has found that the officers have a long history of use of force. Moreover, officers who knew about their colleagues' untoward behavior have so far skated.
"These cops represent a cultural problem going back decades," says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "Hopefully the times are a-changin'."
The recent scandal is only the latest entry in the department's inglorious history of racism. In 1996, FLPD officers were named in a damning U.S. Department of Justice investigation into a yearly Tennessee gathering known as the "Good O' Boy Roundup." Between 1980 and 1995, the event drew around 500 attendees annually, many from law enforcement agencies.
The DOJ report found "ample evidence of shocking racist, licentious, and puerile behavior by attendees." It also noted that in 1992, a Fort Lauderdale Police officer competing in the Redneck of the Year contest performed a skit in which he "claimed to have found a watermelon that had fallen off the back of a passing truck, struck it until it broke open, and then pulled out a doll he had painted black. He described the doll as a seed and told the audience that one must 'kill the seed when it is young,' and proceeded to beat the doll."
More recently, in 2013, a New Times investigation found that 86 percent of the tickets handed out for unregistered bicycles in a three-year period went to African-Americans. A 2015 follow-up found that fewer citations had been handed out between December 2013 and September 2014, but the recipients were still overwhelmingly black — 93 percent.
Then came the most recent scandal. In October 2014, Alvarez's ex-fiancée, Priscilla Perez, emailed Adderley claiming to have proof of racist officers in the department. She provided internal-affairs investigators with screenshots from Alvarez's phone of numerous group text messages among the four officers.
The messages show not only vile racist slurs but the advocating of violence against suspects. "[We] are coming and drinking all your beer and killing niggers," Sousa wrote in one text. In a separate conversation about the search for suspects, Holding stated: "If that's true I'll kiss your ass, I want those niggers." In still another exchange related to the suspects, Holding typed out: "I had a wet dream that you two found those two niggers in the VW and gave them the death penalty right there on the spot."
In another message, Wells simply wrote: "Niggers." In another: "Niggers everywhere."
Then there was the mock movie trailer Alvarez had made for a film called The Hoods. The minute-long clip featured images of police dogs, Fort Lauderdale officers, Django Unchained shots, and images of black suspects. "But one nigger would change everything," the clip read, before showing a picture of President Barack Obama photoshopped with a gold-mouth grill and gold chains.
Alvarez quit the department in October. The remaining three officers denied having any hateful feelings for minorities. Wells referred to the conduct as "distasteful jokes." Sousa claimed his best friend since the third grade was black. Holding pointed out he was dating a Haitian woman.
Then there is their police work. According to the officers' files, all were given departmental marks for ambition and above-average performance. Holding was a two-time officer of the month. But New Times examined the internal-affairs review summaries in each of the ex-officers' files. In total, 74 incidents came under IA review. Fifty-six of those included the use of force (because Wells and Sousa were partners for a period, both files contain use-of-force situations involving both officers). At least 30 of those situations involved black suspects.
In November 2013, Alvarez broke the arm of an irate, white McDonald's customer who wouldn't leave the restaurant. "Officer Alvarez then applied force to get [the suspect]'s hands behind his back and as Officer Alvarez placed [the suspect]'s hands behind his back he heard an [sic] crunching sound," the report reads. IA found no violations of department policy in the incident.
In May 2012, Wells and Sousa allegedly laid into a black suspect on NW 13th Avenue. "Officer Wells struck [a suspect] with a closed fist to his head," the report reads. "Officer Sousa grabbed [suspect]'s leg and continued... by [striking suspect] with a closed fist to his upper right arm." Again, the review found "no apparent violations" of department policy.
Now that the scandal has broken, more accusations are turning up. The Broward chapter of the NAACP last month established a phone line for complaints about the four disgraced officers. At a news conference announcing the phone line, a Broward woman named Cassandra Jordan shared a story of her own run-in with these cops.
"I encountered Alvarez, Wells, and a couple more sergeants approaching my son, who is currently 16," she told reporters at the event. The officers were "using the N-word, breaking in my house without a search warrant. They took my daughter, they hit my daughter, they beat my daughter."
And the Broward Public Defender's Office is reviewing all 56 open and 126 closed cases involving the four police officers since January 2014.
Then there is the question of why other members of the department who knew about the racism — particularly the racist video clip — failed to report it to higher-ups. In the credits for his racist film trailer, Alvarez listed other officers as well. In addition to Wells, Sousa, and Holding, the names of Officers Pedro Cabrera and Vincent Schrider and Detectives Timothy Shields and John Graul appear.
The others all told investigators they disapproved of the video. But they didn't report the situation. Recently, the Citizen's Police Review Board, the outside body tasked with reviewing IA probes of officer misconduct, requested further IA review.
"The investigation lacked a lot of interest in the other officers who might have been involved and knew about it and did nothing," board member Marc Dickerman tells New Times. "Ultimately, it's up to the city manager, Lee Feldman, to decide whether to accept our recommendations to send it back to internal affairs."
One of the things they are likely to consider is the fired officers' backgrounds. Last year, while working for the department's Human Trafficking Unit, Graul ran an investigation in which police lured a suspect to seek illicit sex with a 16-year-old girl. "It became clear to me that this was a case of entrapment," Assistant State Attorney Dennis Nicewander later wrote in a close-out memo after deciding not to proceed with the case. Graul eventually told the state attorney his team became confused and focused the investigation on the wrong man. No discipline followed.
In 2004, Timothy Shields was investigated for exposure of sexual organs and battery. A woman told investigators the officer had pulled up to her house in his police car. While she leaned into the car and spoke with the officer, he allegedly exposed his penis and began to masturbate. The officer also allegedly grabbed her hand and forced her to touch his genitals. Prosecutors declined to press charges. Shields was later given a one-day suspension related to the incident.
Victims of the four officers have also started coming forward. Flower, for one, feels vindicated. Since her run-in with Wells and Sousa, she has maintained the racist cops planted the drugs. Despite offers of probation, she fought the charges until a judge finally threw out the case in December.
"I'm happy now that someone sees that what I was saying was the truth," she says.