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

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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.

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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