Florida cops owe a huge debt of gratitude to Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. Miami Vice made Florida's police officers seem like supercool crime-solvers, ready to take on any case no matter where it leads. That image has been bolstered by such subsequent cinematic masterpieces as Bad Boys II. The truth, of course, is more complicated.
Florida's law enforcement officers are definitely a special breed. After all, every day they're confronted with Florida crime, which is not like crime anywhere else. A simple matter of finding a stolen car, for instance, can lead to the discovery that it contains a naked, unconscious woman or the nation's most notorious serial killer. The cops in Florida also have to deal with Florida's criminals, who tend to be a very wild bunch indeed.
On the plus side, there tend to be very few criminal masterminds in Florida. The crooks may aspire to be the Joker, but mostly they're a joke—like the fugitive who was caught because he replied to people who were making fun of his wanted poster on the sheriff's Facebook page. Or the robbers who dressed up like ninjas to rob a pawn shop but were thwarted by a locked door.
However, this being Florida, some of those sworn to uphold the law sometimes veer to the wrong side of it. We've had cops who got in trouble for hanging out in a strip club while on duty and driving around with mattresses on top of a marked police cruiser. We've even had cops get in trouble for trying to keep one another out of trouble by faking a crime scene—or as one put it, "do a little Walt Disney." (Uncle Walt would've warned you to keep an eye out for when the camera is running.)
Even the upper echelons of Florida police departments can fall prey to sex scandals—some of them rather spectacular in their unraveling.
It's easy to say that these examples are just a few bad apples, but the problems can be broader than that. For instance, a newspaper investigation found that a lot of our worst speeders are cops. The Justice Department just released a report blasting the Miami police for a pattern of using excessive force and repeatedly dropping the ball on investigating officer-involved shootings. Meanwhile, most of the Lakeland Police Department is tied up in a bizarre sex scandal that prompted the New York Daily News to dub them "Florida's Horniest." Still, it's better than back in the 1980s, when so many drug dealers dropped off Burger King bags full of cash at Key West's City Hall that the FBI labeled the entire police department a "continuing criminal enterprise."
The poster boy for bad cops in Florida is German Bosque, who over the course of 20 years was fired five times and arrested three times—charged with stealing a car, trying to board an airplane with a loaded gun, and driving with a suspended license. He was also the subject of 40 internal-affairs cases, 16 of them for battery or using excessive force. Inspections of his patrol car turned up a counterfeit $20 bill, cocaine, and a crack pipe. Yet somehow he managed to hang onto his badge until he was dubbed "Florida's dirtiest cop" by a newspaper. He was fired by the Opa-Locka Police Department and then was arrested again this summer—this time for kidnapping a guy who was trying to file yet another complaint about him.
You could complain about the bad cops to the police chief or sheriff ... except sometimes they're in trouble, too. Computers seem to cause the top cops major problems, like the chief who monopolized the office's only computer just to play online games, or the chief who used his to send racist emails.
Just recently we had a sheriff who got arrested because he turned loose a man who'd just been arrested on a concealed weapons charge, then tried to erase all records that the man had ever been in jail.
Fortunately we've got some fine, upstanding prosecutors to uphold the law and ... oh, wait, they've got a few problems, too. PS: If you're a cop or a prosecutor, it's probably a good idea to steer clear of any place called the Royal Pig.
Still, Florida's police and prosecutors can do some amazing things. I once covered the murder trial of a window installer named Jimmy Randall who was suspected of choking to death several prostitutes, then stripping them and dumping their naked bodies.
What tied him to the murders was a tiny scrap of paper they found on one woman's body. It turned out to be part of a shredded cigarette filter. Randall's girlfriend—a former prostitute—smoked a lot, and when she was done she would give the still-smoldering butt to her pug dog. The dog would suck on it until all the nicotine was gone, then spit out the chewed-up remnants. The floor and rugs in Randall's apartment were covered in these little cigarette scraps that were just like the one that turned up on one of the bodies. The cops were able to match the DNA from the little bit of saliva left in that scrap of paper to Randall's girlfriend, proving that the victim had been in Randall's apartment.
Incidentally, the dog's name was Princess Penny Pickles.
Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.