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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
December 2017

Whether from inside or out, it’s messy at the North Miami Police Department

NPix_MarkSell_12-17orth Miami city manager Larry Spring is under pressure to pick a permanent police chief this month.

“Mr. Manager, at the end of the year, I need to have a permanent chief of police,” Mayor Smith Joseph commanded from the dais at the November 14 council meeting.

Both Spring and the new chief will have their work cut out for them, as the city is now in a growing litigation pie fight stemming from the July 18, 2016, shooting of unarmed behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey, shot in the leg by Officer Jonathan Aledda, who is on paid administrative leave awaiting trial on criminal charges.

The city now faces four federal lawsuits, the latest, for $5 million, from Emile Hollant, commander at the scene, also on administrative leave, who alleges the city has made him a scapegoat.

So far, 27 candidates have applied to be chief -- all men -- including two North Miami natives from inside the department. One is Interim Chief Larry Juriga, a genial but controversial 23-year veteran and longtime power within the force. The other is Assistant Chief Robert Bage, an 18-year veteran.

As of this writing, Juriga is pulling out all stops to get a job he has long believed he deserves. He has courted council members, won praise from the dais, posed for pictures with children, and performed various good deeds. He got a round of applause at Mayor Smith Joseph’s November 15 State of the City address. He works security for the Dolphins in season, and helped secure $50,000 from the team for the Police Athletic League. He has friends and supporters on the force and within the community.

He’s got baggage, though. Juriga, 46 years old, filed a reverse discrimination EEOC complaint in mid-2015 after he overheard ex-city manager Aleem Ghany call him a “redneck.” Juriga, of Weston, said he’d been passed over for promotion. He got a favorable settlement with a $24,990 payout, pay parity with then-chief Leonard Burgess, and paid city health care to age 65, regardless of where he works.

Other South Florida applicants include Gary Jeanniton, a Miami-Dade police major; Craig McQueen, a former major with Miami police; Coral Gables Police Commander Raul Pedroso; and Key Biscayne Chief of Police Charles Press. Further afield, applicants include chief Doyle Samuel Dotson of St. Louis; Robert C. Hertman, a retired NYPD captain and now chief of police for the Town of Wallkill, New York; former Oak Park, Illinois, chief Rick Tanksley; and Terence Calloway, police chief at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

The NMPD offers challenges. For all its recent virtues with community policing and outreach, and improved training, the department has also been a revolving door and pit of intrigue, with four chiefs in five years, complaints of a “toxic atmosphere,” and failing to act on wrongdoing, including at least one EEOC sex harassment complaint.

Most police say they prefer to steer clear of the drama. Some, including those within the command staff, barely speak to each other. Still, its improved training could help in restoring critical state accreditation with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that the department lost in May 2016.

As much of the world knows, Kinsey, lying on his back with his hands up, shouted to police that Arnaldo Rios Soto, a 27-year-old autistic patient in his care, was playing with a toy truck, not a gun. Officer Jonathan Aledda, new to the SWAT team and out of earshot at 152 feet, fired and hit Kinsey in the leg, despite two radio transmissions ordering police to stand down.

Hollant, age 55, said he did not actually see the shooting, and said he was going to his car to get his binoculars. The State Attorney’s Office and state investigators believed him. The city didn’t. Kinsey and the mother of Rios Soto sued the city in federal court.

With the police, one could argue that a pivotal moment happened when Juriga -- no fan of Hollant’s -- walked into Chief Gary Eugene’s office with a CD of Hollant’s radio transmission and said that Hollant had misled his chief by saying he wasn’t a witness. Hollant said he was a witness, but not an eyewitness to the actual shooting. Without listening to the CD, Eugene went straight into Larry Spring’s office and recommended suspension without pay.

Eugene returned to the police station, listened to the CD, and concluded that Juriga, not Hollant, had misled him. He called Spring to stop any action against Hollant, but it was too late. Channel 10 was onto it, and the next morning Spring slammed his hand on the desk and ordered Chief Eugene to suspend Hollant, refusing Eugene’s entreaties to listen to the CD.

Had Juriga invited the chief to listen to the CD without comment, and had Eugene and Spring listened to the transmission before acting or ordering, this chain of events might not have happened.

Hollant’s suit accuses the city of unlawful deprivation of liberty, violation of the whistleblower statutes, and civil rights violations (that’s the count with the $5 million in damages; Hollant is Haitian American).

As the Miami Herald has reported, Hollant, still suspended with pay, has received nearly $175,000 in salary and benefits, including paid vacations. The city has moved to fire him but has held back on pushing the button with the pending lawsuit, and Hollant has refused to quit. The catch is, Hollant must call the department during working hours before he leaves his house, which his attorney, former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, calls paid “house arrest.”

“Emile Hollant had his career destroyed and was crucified for telling the truth,” Pizzi said at a news conference announcing the suit.

Hollant is also represented by Benedict P. Kuehne, the bow-tied lawyer who has represented former North Miami Mayors Andre Pierre and Lucie Tondreau, who is now in federal prison for mortgage fraud not related to city business. Pierre presented Kuehne the key to the city at Tondreau’s lavish May 2013 inauguration. Kuehne successfully represented Pizzi in a month-long federal bribery trial in 2014. Pizzi was acquitted and reinstated, but later ran for re-election and lost.

Right after Pizzi’s news conference, the city bit back, noting that Hollant recently lost his discrimination claims with both the EEOC and the Miami-Dade Human Rights Commission, stating: “We will now defend the city in this lawsuit, in the same way we are ironically defending Commander Hollant and other named individuals in the lawsuits filed by the two victims of the shooting incident.”

We can only wish the new chief luck. May he will learn to breathe and count to ten.

 

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