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.

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.

The command staff includes 22 employees who made six figures, including Chief Noriega's $208,783.73. (Noriega took a medical leave of absence March 16. It's unclear when or if he will return. His replacement, Assistant Chief Martinez, earned $186,467 last year.)

Of the 200, 160 of them topped $100,000 just in taxpayer-funded salaries and city-funded overtime. But many of the officers supplemented their income with off-duty work for private companies that hire them for upward of $30 an hour. Combined with taxpayer-funded overtime, some officers doubled or even tripled their base salaries.

Some of the cops on the list are simply hard workers. The third-highest earner last year, for instance, was Sgt. Hyok Chong, the force's only Korean speaker. He has amassed a clean internal affairs file during 13 years on the job. He brought home $177,827.36 last year, $49,119.19 of that in overtime and an additional $33,173 in off-duty work.

New Times sent a letter through Miami Beach PD's public affairs office to each officer named in this article to give them a chance to respond. None of the officers chose to comment.

Then there's Sgt. Berrian. In 2004, Miramar police responded to a call at the then-34-year-old patrol officer's home. Inside, they found that his wife, Velma, had been hit in the lip and head. Berrian was accused of domestic violence after police learned he'd hit her and tried to backhand Velma's daughter during a fiery argument. The case was never prosecuted after Berrian's wife refused to press charges.

Three years later, in 2007, Berrian hauled in $225,065.15. About $38,000 of that came from an off-duty job, but from taxpayers, he still made $77,000 in salary, $99,700 in overtime, and almost $10,000 in so-called premium pay, which is compensation for special classes, motorcycle work, and other tasks.

Over the past five years, in fact, Berrian has made $824,528. He worked plenty of off-duty hours for private employers. But even if you subtract that pay, he still garnered more than $730,000 in tax dollars — $146,000 per year.

Berrian is a prime example of one of the dangers of allowing officers to work so much overtime. In February 2006, another sergeant found him asleep in his patrol car at Arthur Godfrey Road and Indian Creek Drive, which isn't exactly a quiet corner. He was supposed to be directing morning traffic during a boat show.

Scroll down the list a bit farther to Officer Dominguez, who earned $128,853.86 last year — $122,789.86 of which came from taxpayers. In 2001, the then-29-year-old earned headlines when a clubgoer at Level smashed a champagne bottle across his face during a melee at a Memphis Bleek rap show. Dominguez was hailed a hero. "A hit like that would bring anyone to their knees," Sgt. Richard Pelosi told the Miami Herald. "But this officer stayed conscious."

Dominguez's record isn't so heroic, according to his internal affairs file and court documents. On November 20, 2003, just after 8 p.m., he was speeding toward his home in Hialeah, weaving his city-issued 2003 Ford among cars on southbound I-75.

Just north of 154th Street, Dominguez swerved to pass a car. He didn't notice a Honda in his way until it was almost too late. Dominguez jerked to the right, hitting another car, which skidded across traffic — right in front of a pair of motorcycles.

Osvaldo Dalama, a then-43-year-old from Miramar, was riding with his 20-year-old niece, Sujey Vega, on the back. They went flying. Dalama's good friends, Miramar cop Raul Gomez and his wife, Yolanda, skidded off their bike. Thanks to their helmets, none of the bikers was killed. But all four were seriously hurt.

"Dominguez tried to tell the highway patrol he was on duty, but my friend says, 'Quit bullshitting us. I'm a cop too. You had no lights on, no jurisdiction — you were just driving like a maniac,' " Dalama says. "It's a good thing [Gomez] was there or I'm sure Dominguez would have lied his way out of it."

Last October, the City of Miami Beach settled a civil suit brought by the bikers and paid tens of thousands in taxpayer cash for their injuries. The exact dollar amount is confidential.

If the Miami Beach force punished Dominguez, there's no evidence in his internal affairs file. Neither Dominguez nor the department responded to New Times' request for comment.

Instead, he kept working — or in some cases not working. Dominguez has been reprimanded four times in recent years for abusing sick leave. In 2008 alone, he used 170 hours of sick time — all while earning $134.859.04 in tax dollars ($69,424 in salary, $56,370 in overtime, and $9,064 in premium pay).

The ultimate example of Miami Beach Police Department's coddling of its worst cops is 34-year-old former history teacher Adam Tavss, who was hired in 2006. In his first year on the force, another officer complained that Tavss had abused cocaine at a police Christmas party.

But he kept his job, and on June 14 last year, he shot to death tourist Husien Shehada outside Twist nightclub on Washington Avenue. Surveillance video shows Shehada raised his hands and turned toward Tavss just before the officer fired his gun. Tavss claimed Shehada had a weapon, but none was found on the scene.

Martinez says that Tavss was never dismissed following the cocaine complaint because he passed drug tests and that his return to duty after Shehada's shooting was consistent with the department's policy.

Just four days later, Tavss was back on the beat. And before his shift ended, he had killed 29-year-old Lawrence McCoy Jr. Tavss said McCoy — who allegedly stole a cab and drove the wrong way on the MacArthur Causeway — had brandished a gun. As with Shehada, no weapon was discovered at the scene.

The department stood behind Tavss until September, when a drug test showed pot in his system. In November, he resigned — and picked up a $17,242.46 payout courtesy of Beach taxpayers.

Lawyer John Contini has announced plans to sue the department over both the deaths. "Citizens and tourists ought to boycott Miami Beach for their own safety," Contini says. "You may hope police will protect you, but who will protect you from the police?"

One of the strangest and most disturbing stories to hit the Miami Beach Police Department unfolded just last week.

Richard Anastasi retired on December 6 after almost 14 years on the force as an officer. He left with a fully vested pension and a $23,776.54 payout for unused vacation and sick time, according to city records.

According to a criminal complaint from the FBI, Anastasi's recent trouble started just past midnight on March 11. The victim, an unnamed Russian man, went to an apartment building on West Avenue where he believed a package was waiting for him. Instead, Anastasi and an accomplice, 42-year-old Francisco Arias, forced him into a Jeep and sped away.

Over the course of the next week, they threatened to cut off the Russian man's testicles with a knife, beat him, pointed semi-automatic weapons with laser sights at his head and held pliers to his teeth, the FBI claims. They forced him to call his mom in Russia to wire money and took $1,000. At one point, Arias allegedly told the man that he was going to die and that they would "use him as fertilizer."

The pair demanded $100,000, and the victim tricked them into a meeting last Thursday at 14th Street and Collins Avenue — with the feds listening in. When Anastasi and Arias rolled up in a black SUV, the FBI swooped in for the arrest. Inside the SUV, they found a grab bag of kidnapping tools, from a shotgun and rifle to duct tape and flex handcuffs to fake police badges.

Anastasi admitted to the FBI that he'd impersonated a cop and tried to scare the victim, though he denied trying to extort money from him. He faces federal charges that could carry a life sentence.

In his 14 years as a cop, Anastasi had 17 complaints in his internal affairs files — seven of which were substantiated and resulted in reprimands or suspensions.

Harold Strickland couldn't believe what he was seeing in his old neighborhood.

It was just past 1 a.m. on a balmy Friday in March 2009, and the 45-year-old Denver native was walking to his hotel after leaving Twist, where he had caught up with friends he hadn't seen since moving to Los Angeles five years earlier.

As he headed north on Michigan Avenue past Flamingo Park, Strickland noticed a couple of men kissing in a halogen-lit parking lot.

Then, suddenly, one of the men began to sprint north. Two plainclothes cops dashed after him. Half a block later, one officer tackled the runner to the asphalt and pinned his arms.

The slower cop approached, still running, and kicked the prone man's head like a football. Over the next six minutes and 50 seconds — a time lapse captured on tape after Strickland dialed 911 — the two officers punched and kicked the young man while berating him.

Strickland stayed on the line with a 911 dispatcher as he watched. As he described the beating to an operator, he suddenly sounded confused, adding, "They're coming after me." Hazzi and Forte forced him to lie on the ground, Strickland says. Then one of them said, "We know what you're doing here. We're sick of all the fucking fags in the neighborhood."

They later filed a police report accusing Strickland of trying to break into cars — a charge clearly contradicted by the 911 call record.

"What I saw that night was hate. Hate over the fact that someone is different," Strickland says. "Hate that someone's gender or sexuality is different. In my mind and heart, it was all based on hate."

According to several Beach activists, it's just the latest abuse by a force with a spotty, decadelong history relating to gays. Of course, the latest case also involves two officers with bad records.

The Miami Beach Police Department's first modern conflict with South Beach's gay community, by all accounts, came in late 1995 and early '96 when cops raided three gay clubs — Paragon, Twist, and Glam Slam — and busted dozens of patrons on drug charges. Gay leaders saw it as a crackdown on their community.

Police soon began larger outreach efforts to bridge the gap, and later that same year, the Miami Beach City Commission asked cops and gay leaders to collaborate on a new problem: gay men cruising Flamingo Park.

Gary Knight, then a member of the Beach's gay and lesbian task force, worked with police to spread the word that the park was off-limits. For the most part, the collaboration worked, Knight says, but "one officer was abusing his role right away, spending all his time in Flamingo and harassing anyone gay," Knight recalls.

The cops who allegedly beat the gay man in front of Strickland continued that effort. Officers Eliut Hazzi and Frankly Forte had been hired in 2007. Both had run-ins with internal affairs and their bosses before that March night.

Forte had been put on probation as an officer in training for repeatedly botching responses and ignoring radio calls. Still, he earned a full-time job, records show.

On March 2, 2008 — about a year before his encounter with Strickland — Hazzi was involved in another ugly incident. Santos Ordoñez, manager of Gallery Deja Vu on Ocean Drive, had gone out with friends after work and had a few beers. A little after 11 p.m., he returned to the gallery for his car keys and accidentally set off the security alarm. He called the gallery owner and the security company, but police responded anyway.

The officers — Hazzi and two others — burst in with a police dog and hit him in the face, Ordoñez says. The blow was strong enough to break several teeth. After wrestling the manager into a police car, the cops zapped him with a stun gun, Ordoñez claims. "They never even gave me a chance to explain who I was," he says.

Internal affairs exonerated all three officers of charges of excessive force. The then-26-year-old Hazzi was back on the streets and eventually partnered with Forte.

After the attack in March 2009 that Strickland watched, Hazzi and Forte were reassigned to desk work while internal affairs reviews what the chief called "inconsistencies" in their report. Hazzi, incidentally, earned $108,371.27 last year. Forte isn't among the 200 cops who made six figures.

After Strickland announced plans to sue, Chief Noriega met with members of the Beach's GLBT Business Enhancement Committee on February 9 of this year. "I thought we had a great relationship here," he told them.

But several group members disagreed. Chip Arndt, who runs a gay Democratic caucus, read an email from a young gay tourist who said Miami Beach cops showered him with gay slurs and ran him and his boyfriend off the sand. "You may think that what happened to Howard was an isolated incident, but it wasn't," Arndt said.

Noriega's chief spokesman, Det. Juan Sanchez, who is gay, was given a seat on the GLBT committee. Sanchez has promised to better address hate crime calls to a hot­line. And a lesbian captain was assigned to internal affairs to handle complaints.

"I believe we have always maintained a positive relationship with the city's GLBT Community," Martinez says.

The allegations of improper treatment of minorities aren't limited to gays. Officer Rabih El-Jourdi and his nephew say the department discriminated against them. El-Jourdi was hired in 1999. Almost immediately, he says, other officers began mocking his Muslim faith and Arabic heritage.

His first field training officer called him a "camel jockey and a sand nigger," he says in a series of internal affairs complaints. His second one called him a "rag head" and a "shit bird." Once, a few years later, when his patrol car became stuck on the beach, another officer asked, "Your camel got stuck in the sand? I thought you were from the desert and you don't get stuck in the sand," El-Jourdi says.

Two of the officers he says most frequently tormented him — Sgt. Steve Feldman and Officer John Pereira — are, incidentally, two of the highest-paid in the department. Feldman recently earned $190,655; Pereira picked up $133,842 last year.

According to El-Jourdi, Feldman was fond of patting him down and asking "Where is your C-4?" insinuating he was a suicide bomber. Pereira, he says, refused to stop calling him a "camel jockey."

El-Jourdi claims he waited years to report the incidents because he wanted to be a "team player." But then his nephew, Sweetwater Police Officer Feras Mohammad Ahmad, began working in 2007 on the Beach as a reserve officer. Ahmad immediately faced the same racial slurs and intimidation, El-Jourdi says.

In November 2008, Ahmad filed a civil suit against the City of Miami Beach and the Police Department, detailing the charges. El-Jourdi, in turn, made an internal affairs complaint. Internal affairs investigators ruled the complaint "unsubstantiated" — largely because it came down to a he-said/she-said with the other officers.

The city and the cops have denied the accusations and asked a judge to dismiss them.

Martinez, the department's assistant chief, says the MBPD's overall diversity belies any charges of racism. "Currently 73 percent of the sworn personnel of the department are minorities and 56 percent of the supervisors [sergeants and above] are minorities," he says.

Despite all of those problems, Beach cops earn more than those at other, similarly sized departments in South Florida. In Hialeah, a force with 333 sworn officers, 30 cops topped $100,000 in taxpayer-funded salaries and overtime last year, according to city records. That's only 9 percent of the department, compared to 49 percent of officers on the Beach.

It's even more than tony Coral Gables, where 30 percent of the force earned $100,000 or more, or North Miami Beach, where the number was roughly 40 percent.

The City of Miami has 84 cops whose base salaries top $100,000 — including Chief Miguel Exposito's $196,000 a year — which is 7 percent of the force's 1,110 cops. But that number doesn't include overtime work, which the city claimed it was unable to calculate.

And all of that money hasn't bought better policing on the Beach, according to national stats compiled by the FBI. Beach cops solved 15 percent of crimes — less than Hialeah, North Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade County, which cleared 21 percent, and about equal to Coral Gables and the City of Miami.

But the Beach cops were abysmal in some important areas, solving just eight of 50 rapes reported — by far the worst average in the county — and only 9 percent of all car thefts.

Cops' salaries and pensions, along with precipitously dropping property taxes, might just bankrupt the City of Miami Beach, whose leaders are hard-pressed to rein in police spending. Much of the problem traces to a union agreement that favors cops over taxpayers.

"This contract has been negotiated during more than three decades, so it's very difficult to try to change it in just one sitting," says Jorge Gonzalez, Miami Beach's city manager.

The current three-year contract was negotiated in the heady summer of 2006, when real estate was still on the way up and Miami Beach's bank account was fat. Here's what the agreement guaranteed for Beach cops:

• New hires start at more than $48,000, and cops are guaranteed a 5 percent annual raise every year for their first seven years.

• The city pays for cops' take-home cars, equipment, eyeglasses, and even sunglasses.

• Officers have up to 26 days off each year, including holidays and their birthday, plus up to 12 days of sick leave.

• A "me too" clause guarantees that any new perk negotiated by the firefighters' union also automatically gets added to the cops' pact and vice versa.

To those standard guarantees, the city tossed in additional cost-of-living pay increases that averaged about 5 percent a year, 40 hours more of vacation that retiring cops can sell back to the city for cash when they leave, and an extra $10 a month for "uniform cleaning allowances."

The union has garnered the money in part by playing to public sympathy. In January, police boycotted off-duty work during Super Bowl week and packed City Commission meetings.

"Who wants to piss off a cop?" says Florida State Rep. Juan Zapata, who has introduced a bill this year that would cap pension benefits for public safety workers. "We need to address these contracts in Tallahassee because it's almost impossible for local municipalities to take on police departments."

What's more, the union endorses candidates each election season. The endorsement not only allows a candidate to claim the "law and order" vote but also means the union will encourage its members and friends to donate cash.

Two Miami Beach elected officials, who asked not to be named in this article, say union endorsement is all about money. When the union invites candidates for an interview, they say, the only questions asked are about the contract.

In good years, like 2006, that kind of pressure might not matter as much. But this is anything but a good year. The latest estimate from city actuaries shows a $30 million gap between revenues and spending for 2010.

Roughly half of that deficit comes from plummeting property values. The other half is largely due to skyrocketing pension payouts to the fund that covers police officers and firefighters.

To fix the budget gap, city leaders have proposed that police officers pay 12 percent of their salary — a 2 percent hike — each year into their pensions, that they agree to a two-year freeze in the guaranteed 5 percent raises, and that new hires will be allowed to retire only after age 50. (Now officers can retire whenever their age and years of service add up to 70; so a cop who begins work at age 20 can conceivably retire at 45.)

In early negotiations, the police union has offered to forgo cost-of -living increases for the next two years and to pay an extra 2 percent into the pension fund for one year.

That should be enough to help balance the books, says Fraternal Order of Police President Bello. "We sure as hell aren't going to give up everything we've fought to earn over the last 50 years."

Bello says lack of funding, not six-figure salaries, is the problem. In good times, the department was slated to have more than 400 sworn cops — today there are 367.

"We're in the middle of four weeks of spring break, and we're forcing our guys to work overtime to deal with the country's spring breakers," Bello says. "It's just one event after another on the Beach, yet we're forced to fight with city leaders to show what we're worth."

To Mayor Bower, that argument rings hollow. "This isn't a good year to make the same demands as in years past. I know this is a dangerous job, but they went into the police force knowing that. We're going to need to hold the line on the budget, and part of that means everybody has to give up something."

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink