An internal review of Miami-Dade police actions in a botched 2011 sting operation calls for changes in how the agency prepares for and conducts those operations, but recommended no discipline for the 11 officers who killed four men, including the informant who lured the others to the staged home invasion.
The department’s Professional Compliance Bureau Tuesday released the internal affairs investigative file on the June 30, 2011 shootings to NBC 6 Investigators in response to a public records request.
The department Thursday confirmed that MDPD police director J.D. Patterson signed off on the decision not to issue discipline on March 18.
Questions to the department about whether the director agrees with the so-called “disposition panel” and what if any changes have been made in sting operations have, so far, not been answered.
The panel - which included high-ranking officers from Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay, as well as the MDPD chief of special investigations – exonerated one of the 11 officers who opened fire.
The panel found the killing of would-be home invader Jorge Lemus was justified.
Lemus, holding a handgun when he was confronted by an officer, was the first of the four men killed that night outside a county-owned home where, the informant told the others, drugs and money awaited them.
While exonerating the officer who shot Lemus, the panel said “insufficient information in the investigative file” left them “unable to determine if the shooting officers’ actions were justified, lawful or proper” when they killed the other three men, including their own informant, Rosendo Betancourt.
Therefore, the allegations against the other 10 officers were ruled “Not Sustained,” the panel’s Nov. 11, 2014 memo states.
That conclusion mirrors the state attorney’s office, which ruled Lemus’ death was the only one it could state was legally justified. Citing “a number of unusual, counter-intuitive, suspicious and/or disturbing factors present in the other three shootings, we cannot state definitively that those shootings were legally justified,” the state attorney found. Yet, without sufficient evidence to disprove the officers’ claims that they fired when they feared for their lives, the prosecutors declined in March 2014 to file any charges against officers.
That decision allowed the administrative, internal affairs investigation to proceed, resulting in the disposition panel finding no evidence to support disciplining any of the officers.
But the panel took issue with how the department prepared for and conducted the sting operation.
Among the changes it said was needed: all such operations should have a contingency plan addressing the possibility an officer, agent, source or informant winds up engaging in the same conduct as the targets of the operation. Betancourt was told to stay with the car, but relayed to his police handlers that he was being forced to go along on the home invasion. They discussed possibly aborting the mission, but chose to let it proceed, according to police statements.
Betancourt’s family is suing the county and the three officers who shot him, claiming they were carrying out an unofficial policy, practice or custom to lure suspects to staged crime scenes, then execute them without benefit of trial.
The officers who killed Betancourt and the others said they never heard the informant could have been in the field, though their commander was told on radio that was a possibility. “We cannot confirm that the CI is driving that vehicle,” then-Lt. Calvin James was told by radio. “Right now we have to treat him like he might be in that field.”
Also confusing for some that night: the words the infiltrator would use to indicate the operation should be aborted.
Betancourt used some variation of the phrase “I’m going to Disney World” three times as he knew officers were listening in to his conversations with the targets in the undercover police vehicle he was given to drive. The state attorney’s office stated in its findings “Disney World” was Betancourt’s code phrase to indicate a problem, “but his apparent call for help went unheeded.”
Police say it was a signal that all participants were in the vehicle and armed.
The panel said everyone should “have specific knowledge and a clear understanding of the safe/takedown term that the officer/agent he will be instructed to use to terminate the operation. This term should be incorporated into the operational plan and the officer/agent should be instructed that the term is not only for the takedown arrest, but also to indicate that the officer/agent believes that the operation should be aborted.”
In addition to exposing flaws in planning, the panel took issue with the command and control of the Redland operation, which was conceived by the department’s robbery division, but executed in conjunction with James’ special response team. (Two years after the killings, James was promoted to major and now heads the department’s homicide division.)
The panel said operations involving two or more elements of the department should not be done without top officers being together in one field location. James and the robbery lieutenant were separated during the Redland sting.
The panel also found a “breakdown in perimeter discipline,” saying command personnel should have used live video feeds of the scene to direct search teams to the fleeing suspects. “Clear direction and strong supervisions will minimize the risks,” the panel said.
In addition, the panel said the department should review and evaluate for supplemental training how its officers make contact with suspects. The first officer should take control and issue verbal commands to safely contain and secure the threat, the memo states, while additional officers should hold the subject at gunpoint for officer safety.
In the Redland, one of those killed, Antonio Andrew, had complied with one officer’s order to lie on his back, arms spread, as that officer stood nearby with a rifle pointed at him. The situation was deemed safe enough for two of that first officer’s colleagues to move away, leaving the first officer with the compliant Andrew on the ground. But Andrew was killed two minutes later after other officers approached and, they all say, Andrew made a sudden move toward a gun in his waistband.
The last man killed that night was the home invasion crew’s ringleader, Roger Gonzalez Sr., shot more than 50 times when officer say he made a threatening move. They did not know he had dropped or disposed of his gun before hiding in the grove where he was shot.
After that last killing, one officer can be seen on video thumping the chest or arm of another officer, and then pumping his own fists.
One of the officers on that scene denied seeing or participating in any chest-thumping or other celebratory gesture after the killings were over.
While conducting the internal investigation, police opened a criminal investigation into the disappearance of a police surveillance watch Betancourt was wearing hours before he was killed. His family’s attorneys claim the evidence was destroyed by officers who feared the device had captured what was said just before Betancourt was shot to death. The county said the device was not designed to record long enough to capture what happened at the time of the killings.