Sonny's Last Stand

Michael Brasfield became Fort Lauderdale's police chief in the summer of 1995 after a 30-year law-enforcement career in Seattle. In a deposition last December, he answered a seemingly bizarre question about his first days on the job in Broward County. The question was whether he had ever been accused of impersonating a police officer.

"I've never been charged with that," Brasfield offered. Then he backed up and explained that in the autumn of '95 he had been invited to address graduating officers at the Broward Community College Criminal Justice Institute.

"I donned the uniform of the chief of police of Fort Lauderdale, went in full view of 300 people and 40 or 50 cameras and gave my speech and said to love, honor, and obey, and then departed," Brasfield recalls. "Then the next morning, I learned that some members of the [Fraternal Order of Police] took exception to that, and in fact one visited the state attorney's office to see if I could be charged with the unauthorized carrying of a weapon."

In theory, Brasfield could have been. He lacked certification as a police officer in Florida, a deficit he's since corrected by attending a course at the law-enforcement academy. But there was more to the episode than legal nitpicking. Brasfield was chosen from dozens of job applicants in a nationwide search. One candidate he beat out was local union favorite Joe Donisi, the department's long-time second in command. The message to Brasfield, the outsider picked by Fort Lauderdale's city manager: Don't forget where the real power lies.

How did the new chief interpret this chilly welcome to the subtropics? Brasfield said that before coming to Fort Lauderdale he had reviewed newspaper clips and a consultant's report about the police department. "I gathered from my rather limited research that there had been a period of animosity between the union and the city over wage and contract negotiations," he noted.

Brasfield, his predecessor Tom McCarthy, and most of the senior command staff of the Fort Lauderdale police department are on the witness list for a federal civil rights trial set to begin next month in Miami. So are Mayor Jim Naugle and the other four members of the Fort Lauderdale city commission, dozens more cops and city officials, and a host of private citizens with direct or indirect connections to a series of events that began five summers ago.

Some of those named as potential witnesses might wish the lawsuit had disappeared by now, but none of Fort Lauderdale's elected officials favors an out-of-court settlement -- something a majority of the city commission would have to approve. So instead of disappearing, the case file has swelled to more than 4000 pages of pleadings and a veritable truckload of exhibits. Two weeks ago U.S. Circuit Court Judge Alan Gold denied the City of Fort Lauderdale's request for summary judgment, clearing the way for courtroom combat.

The main combatant, and the one doing the suing, is a character often noted in newspapers a few years ago but lately absent from the public eye -- Sonny Irons, erstwhile neighborhood activist, confidant of local politicians, and lightning rod for police animosity and suspicion.

"We understand that society has become very litigious," says Commissioner Carlton Moore. "We understand that people may be inclined to sue an entity with deep pockets. But anybody on our commission who would settle such a frivolous lawsuit would be an incompetent elected official."

Naugle says he too wants the lawsuit to go to trial, but for reasons different than Moore's. There's something "terribly wrong" inside city hall and the police department, he warns -- something intimately linked to a 1994 raid on Irons' home and to circumstances leading up to that raid. In short: a continuing conspiracy.

"I'm hoping this will lead to an end," Naugle says. "Just to settle this thing out of court means that this dirt is still lying under the carpet. And the next one they could come after will be you or me."

The mayor's melodramatic tone echoes Moore, who hints at "individuals high up in city government who may have sought certain protections for Mr. Irons."

Naugle notes that if the city loses a monetary judgment in the case, he will seek to recoup the loss by going after the pensions of individual police officers and city officials. It's a stratagem that's been employed elsewhere but would be unprecedented in Fort Lauderdale. "Maybe when they start thinking about losing their pensions, they'll come forward and let us know what really went on," he adds, declining to say who he thinks "they" might be.

Irons and his attorneys have yet to put a dollar figure on the damages they are seeking.

"We hope that the outcome of this will be some definite rules about how search warrants are conducted," Irons says. "We also hope that next time local police have doubts about a high-level member of the government, they will turn directly to an outside agency and step back."

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Sean Rowe