After last week's bombshell revelation of racist cops in the Fort Lauderdale Police ranks, the Broward criminal justice system is still reeling. The termination of three officers and resignation of another — James Wells, Christopher Sousa, Jason Holding, and Alex Alvarez, respectively — for racist text messages and other idiocy does more than add another black eye to the department. It throws all their police work into question. In this spirit, Broward Public Defender Howard FInkelstein is directing his office to review cases involving the four disgraced officers.
"We have a lot of pending cases with these cops that are being looked at immediately," Finkelstein tells New Times. "The more difficult questions surround cases over the past two years that these cops were involved in, especially if it's one-on-one, meaning it’s the cops' word against our client. We are trying to figure out how to approach that."
As the legal counsel for the county's poor and disposed, the Public Defender's Office represents clients who are mostly minorities. They're the ones most often coming into contact with police officers and with little means to mount complaints when they're treated poorly by law enforcement. So often, those cases are based on the word of the cops against the word of citizens. Often, courts believe the cops. But now, knowing what we know, can we really take the word of someone like Alex Alvarez over anyone?
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According to Finkelstein, there are currently 56 open cases involving the four cops now under review. In addition, there are 126 cases closed between January 1, 2014, and now that list the four as witnesses. Wells is tied to 43 cases, Sousa to 28, Holding to 27, and Alvarez to 28.
"While the chief did the right thing by firing them, it is baffling why it took so long," Finkelstein says. "In my situation where we had two lawyers engaged in hate speech toward Palestinians, we found out about it on a Friday, I think, and the terminations took place the following Tuesday."
This latest scandal comes after a number of bad headlines for the department. In early March, Officer Victor Ramirez was caught slapping a homeless man. Then you have the statistically proven racial bias by the Fort Lauderdale PD regarding its enforcement of a bike registration law.
"There are two ways to look at this: Either the police got rid of a few bad racist apples or these cops represent a cultural problem going back decades," Finkelstein says. "The latter is the truth. It is that culture that spawned driving, walking, and biking while black arrests so disproportionately. Hopefully the times are a-changin'."