One of the biggest cries during the police reform marches of the summer of 2020 was about the inability of the public — even some police departments — to accurately track cops with bad records.
In Florida, for instance, without a court conviction, it’s extremely difficult to know if an officer has been repeatedly accused of brutality, or of falsifying records. Internal reviews can offer a glimpse into past allegations of misconduct, but obtaining public records can be expensive and navigating them, difficult.
The state of Florida finally addressed the question with the unveiling of the Florida Officer’s Discipline Database. The basic website can be accessed by simply typing in an officer’s name and guesstimating a start date.
The site, which debuted last week, is a start, but also has some critical holes, police reform advocates say. Among them: It doesn’t include citizen complaints, only goes back a decade, and for an officer to make the list, he or she must have a felony criminal conviction or have been found guilty of a moral character violation.
“I’m glad there is a move towards transparency and accountability. But it’s far short of what we’re all looking for,” said former Miami-Dade prosecutor and civil rights attorney Melba Pearson. She noted that Derek Chauvin, convicted in the murder of George Floyd, had more than 20 complaints against him over his career. “That’s one of the key components that people have been calling for — not only convictions, but complaints.”
In Florida, a database for officer misconduct already exists. But it’s clunky, almost impossible for most people to navigate and requires wading through stacks of quarterly reports. Even the state admits an average citizen would not likely be able to access it.
Yet Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman Jeremy Burns denied the new, improved version of the database had anything to do with public pressure.
“In Florida, this information has historically been posted and available to the public,” he said. “FDLE staff simply created a searchable database using existing publicly accessible data. This was not mandated at the state or national level.”
For an officer to show up on the new database, he or she must have committed a “moral character violation,” or be charged with or convicted of a felony. The list of violations are long, and include everything from DUI and stalking, to excessive use of force or falsifying information.
But an officer is only listed if an internal affairs review recommends disciplining the officer for a crime or moral character violation. And even then, FDLE said, a panel from the state school that certifies officers called the Criminal Justice Standards Training Commission must also find probable cause.
Like its predecessor, the new website has some significant holes, advocates say. The Miami Herald, with the help of the FDLE, inserted the names of three police officers with well-publicized and checkered histories in law enforcement in Miami-Dade County. Only one showed up in the system.
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The website also claimed that the officer was unemployed — though he actually got a recent promotion. It’s German Bosque, currently a captain in Opa-locka, who has been fired seven times and arrested and cleared three others during a 29-year career. Last year, he was fired for allegedly conspiring to cover up a crime scene for another cop. He got his job back. He also won at trial in a case in which he was accused of handcuffing and punching a youth counselor who had come to the police station to file a complaint against him. A decade ago, a Sarasotra Herald-Tribune investigation dubbed Bosque “Florida’s worst cop.”
According to the search results on the new FDLE website, Bosque was found guilty of kidnapping and witness tampering and is unemployed as a police officer. He was charged with those crimes. But by 2017, after the case had fallen apart and prosecutors had quietly dropped the charges, Bosque was reinstated and promoted in Opa-locka.
FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the database is limited to showing the employment at the time of the charge, so it’s not current.
The database only goes back to 2012. Two other officers with controversial histories didn’t show up at all.
One is Sergio Perez, an Opa-locka police officer fired in 2015 after taking part in a police chase that ended in the death of four tourists from California on Interstate 95. Perez, initially terminated for “pursuing the vehicle the wrong way on the highway,” eventually got his job back after an arbiter determined the city’s investigation into Perez was flawed.
He was demoted to a desk job in code enforcement last September after being charged with misdemeanor battery on a fellow police officer, when he allegedly shocked him with a Taser. He’s currently under criminal investigation by the FDLE for a 2020 incident in which he and another officer were videotaped dragging a bound and mentally ill teen down five steps, his head bouncing off the concrete.
Also absent from the list is Miami’s Javier Ortiz. He’s been suspended for the better part of the past two years and was the subject of a scathing two-year state and federal investigation that detailed dubious arrests, allegations of misconduct and “a pattern of abuse and bias against minorities, particularly African-Americans.”
His controversial social media posts include fights with legendary songstress Beyonce over a video she made and calling Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child killed by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun, a “thug.”
Though the FDLE probe didn’t result in any criminal charges — the agency said in many cases too much time had elapsed — Ortiz remains suspended today. Just last week a police panel recommended Ortiz be fired for a 2021 incident in which the panel claimed he wasn’t turning in his time card to the proper supervisor.
A confrontation with Ortiz and other Miami cops on Biscayne Boulevard in the aftermath of a 2013 Miami Heat world championship left a fan named Francois Alexandre with a broken eye socket. Charges against Alexandre for inciting a riot and resisting arrest were quickly dropped but the encounter inspired Alexandre to advocate for police reform. He made a name for himself organizing some of the local 2020 marches.
Ortiz was never punished for striking Alexandre or convicted of a crime and he’s remained on the city’s payroll for the past nine years. Alexandre now has two young children, has graduated from Florida International University and is seeking a career in general contracting. But he’s disappointed that officers accused in repeated rough or questionable arrests often escape serious discipline and remain on the force.
“Nobody was found guilty of breaking my orbital bone. And if it wasn’t for George Floyd, nobody would even know about me,” said Alexandre. “In terms of the state being pro-active, I’m very optimistic. But the fact that Javier Ortiz has nine lives, to me, that’s just very astonishing.”
-- By Charles Rabin, Miami Herald