Miami

Miami Police Directed Away From Investigating Elected Officials. Here's How it Happened

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A resolution passed 4-1 by Miami commissioners in 2020 directs all criminal investigations, higher than misdemeanors and traffic violations, to the FDLE and/or the FBI to avoid any perceived conflicts. But it’s creating controversy because some people think it’s a get out of jail card for elected officials.

The stability of Miami’s city government has seriously been questioned after the public battle between Police Chief Art Acevedo and three city commissioners. Acevedo’s job appears to be in jeopardy, and a multi-million dollar lawsuit has already been filed.

NBC 6 wanted to know more about one issue raised in the scandal: why city commissioners directed police away from investigating elected officials and their staff?

In an eight-page memo to the city manager, Acevedo wrote he contacted the Department of Justice about three sitting commissioners - Manolo Reyes, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, and Joe Carollo - for "unlawful interference and obstruction" of internal affairs investigations, "intimidation," and violating the city charter among other accusations.

The city commissioners strongly deny the allegations, calling them "ridiculous" and "lies."

It came to a head last week when Carollo challenged Acevedo to come into the public meeting and arrest him then and there.

Carollo called "for he, himself to come down and have the guts to do it in a public meeting. If not, to shut his big mouth and to please quit threatening us."

Members of the Miami Police Department watching closely as Chief Art Acevedo navigates his way forward. Meanwhile, there are reports that a plan is in the works to try and fire the chief. NBC 6's Steve Litz reports

That’s when city manager Art Noriega assured Carollo the local police would not arrest him because Miami police do not investigate elected officials or their staff for possible felonies. They instead send cases to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“That has to be deferred to either the FDLE or the FBI. He (Acevedo) was aware of that memo and there will be no arrest made by anyone within the Miami police department of any sitting elected official,” Noriega told the commission.

Noriega was referring to the city resolution passed four to one in February 2020 directing the city to come to agreements with the FDLE and the FBI to hand them all criminal cases higher than misdemeanors or traffic violations to avoid "any perceived conflicts."

Carollo brought up the measure and had concerns about police being too hard on some elected officials and going too easy on others.

"Frankly, I think they should be relieved of that because that’s a no-win for any police department in the country to get involved with elected officials or people that work for them," Carollo said at the time.

The item was described as an “emergency” and came days after Miami police arrested a staff member for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Rene Pedrosa, for allegedly groping a teenage boy and sending sexually explicit messages. Federal charges were later filed against Pedrosa for child pornography. Pedrosa pleaded not guilty. The trial is set for early 2022. A request for comment to his attorneys has not been returned.

According to an executive order from the Governor, the Miami-Dade State Attorney requested the Broward State Attorney’s Office take up the Pedrosa case to avoid a conflict of interest. Prosecutors in Broward County handed the case over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office once federal charges were filed.

The commission resolution meanwhile passed four to one with then-commissioner Keon Hardemon voting against it.

"Can we do this?" Hardemon asked, concerned about it obstructing a law enforcement investigation.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which houses a public corruption unit, is not mentioned in the resolution.

Experts Say it Impacts Perception More Than Policing

Law enforcement experts tell NBC 6 the resolution put in writing what was already in practice for many corruption cases. Miami police often refer those investigations to other agencies to avoid a conflict of interest or appearance of one.

Experts say this resolution would not supersede state law requiring officers to arrest a suspect if a crime is committed in front of them.

This resolution does, however, create the perception of a gray area for other common felonies such as grand theft, drug possession, driving under the influence, or assault.

Similar concerns were brought up at the time by then-Miami police chief Jorge Colina. He persuaded the commission to limit the resolution to only include staff members for the past two years because of the large amount of staff.

In an interview, Colina tells NBC 6 he agreed with the intent of the resolution to avoid conflict of interests but a one size fits all policy comes with concerns.

“The spirit of the ordinance is so no one is being treated unfairly at the hands of the police on one side and no one’s receiving special favors,” Colina said.

“Honestly, perception is more important than reality," he said.

Colina echoed his concerns from 2020, worrying about not giving investigators the ability to weigh each case separately based on specific circumstances. He also worried about the perception this is giving elected officials and their staff a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“That is a concern and that was a concern for me, that some people might feel that way. Honestly, it’s ok to feel that way,” said Colina. “That’s one of the great things about living in this country is we’re a democracy and the elected body gets to discuss and pass an ordinance like this, hopefully in what’s in the best interest of the community. Then the community can come out and say, well we don’t like that.”

Longtime criminologist and chair of the sociology department at the University of Miami Alex Piquero tells NBC 6 the resolution is not a common move for a city government to make.

Piquero says it’s a good idea to have a third party look at public corruption allegations because the perception of conflicts of interests are an extremely important part of a police department’s trust within the community.

The other aspect the resolution doesn’t take into account: resources.

“The FDLE is probably not going to care so much if you put your trash in someone else’s lawn or something of that nature,” said Piquero. "You don’t want to send all of these investigations to the FDLE and the FBI unless they are warranted. I think everybody wins a bit here and everybody loses a bit here."

Spokespeople for the FDLE and the FBI have not yet returned a request for comment.

Implications for Commission and the Chief

Carollo, in interviews after last week’s meetings, said Acevedo came to him twice asking for the commission to reverse the resolution so local police could investigate local leaders. Carollo said reversing it now would give the chief inappropriate leverage over the commission in their very public fight.

“I have no trust in this individual to be our police chief,” said Carollo.

In response to the allegations, the commission is creating an investigative panel to look into themselves and the chief, overseen by the five city commissioners.

Requests for comment to the Miami Police Department and Acevedo have not been returned.

Commissioners Reyes, Diaz de la Portilla, and Carollo opposed the chief’s moves of firing two high ranking police leaders, demoting four majors, bringing in an outside deputy chief from Houston, and suspending a popular commission sergeant at arms. The dispute became very public after the chief joked the department was run by the "Cuban Mafia" while talking about diversity. Many Cuban-American officers and the three Cuban-American city commissioners did not find the comment funny.

The battle has since escalated into many-hours long public meetings disparaging and criticizing the chief. The three commissioners have generally echoed the complaints from the local police union.

Mayor Suarez originally touted the hire of “America’s police chief” but has been quiet recently. His office did not return a request for comment. Neither did spokespeople for city manager Noriega, who earlier announced he would no longer be speaking publicly about the chief versus commission battle.