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

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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."

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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