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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
May 2017

North Miami Police Department faces a new firestorm

IPix_MarkSell_5-17f April seemed like the cruelest month for the North Miami Police Department, the trickiest business lies ahead.

Knives are out. Careers are on the line. The department is divided, and an attempted mutiny may be in the offing.

Two catalysts have hurled the department back into the global media fishbowl.

First, on April 12, Sgt. Jonathan Aledda was indicted for attempted manslaughter in the July 18, 2016, shooting of Charles Kinsey as the behavioral therapist was trying to coax the severely autistic Arnaldo Rios from the pavement on NE 14th Avenue back to their group home on NE 128th Street. Rios was holding a silver toy truck that was mistaken for a gun from a distance.

Second, audio testimony by North Miami Police Chief Gary Eugene from a July 28, 2016, interview with investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was made public April 4 by New Times.

In the audiotape, Eugene describes a department riven by animosities, dysfunction, and insufficient training. He had been sworn in just six days before the shooting, with a mandate to advance professionalism after loss of critical state accreditation and years of revolving police chiefs.

John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, has waded into the brawl, calling Aledda a “hero,” labeling State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s prosecution “gross and disgusting,” and registering the PBA’s “complete disgust with the false, irresponsible, and defamatory statements” made by Chief Eugene.

Before you surmise that adds up to a no-confidence vote in the chief, two questions: Is a shadow police department-within-the-department undermining command? If so, what’s to be done?

Aledda, represented by the PBA, is not the only officer in limbo. Shortly after the shooting, at a July 22 press conference, Commander Emile Hollant was denounced for “giving conflicting evidence,” and suspended. Today he still twists in the wind, on administrative “home duty,” meaning he can’t do police work and must call the department to leave his house between 9:00 a.m and 5:00 p.m., pending closure of a police internal affairs investigation -- nine months after the shooting, when memories get fuzzy.

But Hollant was cleared of wrongdoing way back on August 2 by the State Attorney’s Office, which concluded he “did not lie, and that there was no intent by Commander Hollant to mislead or obstruct investigators or command staff.” On April 5, the office reaffirmed its statement, citing pressure to review its conclusions.

So who’s trying to pin Hollant? Until charging documents are revealed or more people testify, we may not know. If heads roll, whose heads?

“This is a witch hunt, and I want Emile Hollant made whole,” says Hollant’s attorney, Michael Joseph, who intends to sue. Hollant appeared April 18 and 21 before internal affairs, now including former Miami Assistant Police Chief Adam Burden, hired as a part-time consultant at $113,100 for one year ending this September.

According to Eugene’s testimony, Hollant’s travails started July 21, when Assistant Chief Larry Juriga, then running investigations, told the chief that Hollant had issued the radio transmission that caused Aledda to shoot, but then misled investigators, saying he wasn’t at the shooting scene.

Eugene, enraged, went straight to city manager Larry Spring and city attorney Jeff Cazeau, and agreed to suspend Hollant without pay. A public information officer (since transferred) was also in the room.

But as Eugene was driving home, he told FDLE investigators, he recalled bad blood between Juriga and Hollant, spun back to work to listen to the transmission, and concluded that Juriga, not Hollant, had misled him.

The next morning, Eugene begged Spring to listen to the transmission, but it was too late. A Channel 10 crew had just ambushed Spring as he walked into work.

According to Eugene’s FDLE testimony, Spring slammed his hand on the desk and asked, “Can’t you get control of your people?” He also demanded Hollant’s immediate suspension. At noon that day, Spring led a press conference in a packed room, announcing the suspensions of Aledda and Hollant.

In the radio transmission, Hollant reported that Rios “appeared to be loading his weapon,” followed by the word from the dispatcher: “Precaution.” No one gave an order to shoot. Hollant, 170 feet north of Kinsey and Rios, was 18 feet farther away than Aledda -- too far to see much or hear anything.

Officers Kevin Crespo and Alens Bernadeau, rifles drawn, were inching forward just 20 feet south of Kinsey and Rios. They heard Kinsey shouting, “It’s a toy truck!” and were close enough to see for themselves. Bernadeau radioed that Rios was holding a toy. Bernadeau repeated the message and called for units to stand down.

Hollant testified that the transmission prompted him to run to his car for binoculars. When he got to the car 30 seconds later, he heard the shots.

Hollant also told investigators that Angel Rivera, the SWAT team commander and Aledda’s immediate superior, had tried to spook Hollant into changing his testimony.

Hollant testified August 11: “What was most alarming is someone I have not spoken to in two years -- Commander Rivera -- comes up to me and tells me that I held back some information that could have helped this officer.” Hollant testified that Rivera then repeated the claim in front of another commander.

Juriga, 46 years old and a 24-year veteran of the force, is the son and nephew of two high-ranking former North Miami Police officers. He has a champion in deputy city manager Arthur H. Sorey, III, age 42, son of the city’s first African-American councilman. They go back nearly 30 years, to Juriga’s Parks and Recreation coaching days. Juriga and Angel Rivera are also members of an informal, tight-knit group of retired and current officers -- dubbed by votersopinion.com blogger Stephanie Kienzle as “The Illuminati” -- who socialize, help each other’s careers, and work to consolidate influence in police departments.

Juriga and Angel Rivera still have their ranks, although Juriga has been transferred from investigations to code enforcement, and Rivera is back on patrol and off the SWAT team.

The department has vaulted ahead in training, procedures, and community relations since the shooting, at a cost to the city of more than $1 million, with body cams and training in autism, crisis intervention, and marksmanship. Eugene, Spring, and the city council are working hard to address morale, assuring police that they have their backs.

Until everyone involved tells the truth, however, the North Miami Police Department fishbowl will remain murky, and will clear only when all the fish start swimming in the same direction under one command -- tough to do when sharks are in the water.

 

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