Alleged use of excessive force by Key West cops has been the talk of the island since retired General Motors worker Charles Eimers, 61, died after a rough arrest last Thanksgiving Day on South Beach. But its not like this is the first time that “excessive force” and other police wrong-doing has been the topic of conversation here. For example, I went back and flipped through the headlines of just one year of back issues of Key West The Newspaper (the Blue Paper). Here are just a few of the stories we covered back in 2002.
First of all, it may come as a surprise to you that then-State Attorney Mark Kohl was in the midst of a sweeping investigation of the KWPD. Four officers had been arrested or forced to resign and another officer was trying to cut a probation deal to avoid charges. During a street brawl in front of Sloppy Joe’s in July 2000, witnesses said that several tourists were allegedly beaten up by police officers, but none of the cops on the scene could remember anything about any brawl. So Kohl, fed up with “blue amnesia,” charged a number of officers with knowingly falsifying arrest affidavits. Lying on official police documents. Sound familiar?
In March 2000, the infamous Key West cop Al Flowers, after 18 years on the force, resigned and gave up his law enforcement credentials to avoid charges of official misconduct. Back in 1998, Lt. Flowers had ordered a subordinate to falsify an arrest affidavit charging a suspect with a felony that Flowers knew he didn’t commit. The incident had been reported to Internal Affairs by another police officer at the time, but was ignored. Sound familiar?
Flowers’ long history of rough arrests and, what fellow officers called “antiquated methods of policing” were well known within the police department. Over the years, Flowers had developed a reputation of piling on charges that sometimes resulted in those being stopped for routine traffic checks being roughed up and jailed. At one time, department supervisors called him into a special meeting to warn him that his over-the-top behavior had to stop or they would take action that could have him removed from the force. But then-Police Chief Buz Dillon defended Flowers.
Also in March of 2002, Officer Michael Beerbower was charged with three counts of battery. Back in July 2000, Beerbower had repeatedly punched and pepper-sprayed two handcuffed suspects in the face while other officers watched and reportedly cheered. The incident was reported to Internal Affairs by another officer, but IA investigators found that other officers on the scene had contracted blue amnesia and couldn’t remember anything about anybody punching anybody in the face. So that investigation went nowhere. But that bird came back to roost when lawyers for the two suspects, getting ready for trial, conducted depositions. When the officer who originally reported the punching incident to IA was deposed, he testified to what he had seen. And an Assistant State Attorney who was sitting in on the deposition reported the allegation back to the State Attorney. Beerbower was able to keep his job by cutting a probation deal, but he was eventually forced to resign from the force for, you guessed it, punching other handcuffed suspect in the face.
In June of 2000, John Caris, 40, alleged that Beerbower had done exactly the same thing to him two months earlier. Caris, who had been arrested after a domestic dispute, said that Beerbower had punched him in the face while he sat handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car. But that was only the beginning. He said he was pulled out of the car and hogtied and, while Officer Pablo Rodriguez was transporting him to jail, Rodriguez drove into an ally behind a closed gas station, where he was pulled out of the car and beaten by at least six officers. Caris filed a formal complaint– but none of the officers allegedly involved in the beating could remember anything about such an allegation.
Rodriguez was also involved in another high-profile excessive force case the previous year. After being arrested on minor theft charges (that were later dropped) fourth-generation Conch John B. Knowles said that, after he was handcuffed, he was knocked down and beaten by Rodriguez while other officers watched. One officer at the scene later told investigators that he could hear bones breaking in Knowles’ face. Knowles sued the city and recovered a substantial settlement. The battery charge against Rodriguez was dropped.
Also in 2002, the City of Key West agreed to pay a Polish army major $ 80,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that he was crippled for life by Key West police officers who used excessive force during a wrongful arrest back in May 1996. No charges were ever filed against the victim. No internal investigation was ever conducted by the KWPD.
At this point, would it have surprised you to see the following headline in our June 21, 2002 issue? “Blind Man Abused by Police May Sue.” Three Key West police officers were involved with slamming Robert Jacobs to the ground and carting him off to jail. Jacobs, 44, is blind. Jacobs’ companion said the altercation occurred after a police car almost ran them down and Jacobs became angry and hit the hood of the police car with his cane. Police charged Jacobs with criminal mischief and resisting arrest without violence. State Attorney Mark Kohl refused to prosecute, however. None of the officers involved were ever disciplined.
Finally, you certainly may not be surprised at the following headline that appeared in our October 25, 2002 issue: “Pattern & Practice Within the Police Department / Falsification, Coverup & Conspiracy.”
The Year 2002 was also the year that more than 60 percent of Key West voters who went to the polls in November approved an amendment to the City Charter that created a Citizen Review Board to oversee an out-of-control police department. Go figure.
Dennis Reeves Cooper founded Key West The Newspaper in 1994 and was editor and publisher until he retired in 2012.