by Dennis Reeves Cooper.......
The Citizen Review Board (CRB) is a big deal. Now 13 years old, the CRB is an independent city agency with the authority to investigate complaints involving Key West police officers. The reason this is a big deal is that, before 2002, there was no such agency here. Citizen complaints often just disappeared into a black hole inside the Key West Police Department (KWPD). What you may not know about the CRB is that it is unique among City departments, boards and agencies in that it was not created by the City government. It was created by the the people-- the voters. Not only was the CRB not created by the government, it was created over the almost-hysterical opposition of then-Mayor Jimmy Weekley, then-City Manager Julio Avael and then-Police Chief Buz Dillon. When a citizen committee was formed to push for the creation of a civilian police oversight board, Weekley, Avael and Dillion responded loudly and often, saying, in essence, "We don't need no stinkin' oversight board made up of a bunch of know-nothing civilians!"
But the reality, back in 2002, was that the KWPD was virtually out of control. 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 Lt. Al Flowers, after 18 years on the force, resigned and gave up his law enforcement credentials to avoid charges of official misconduct. A few years earlier, 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. Flowers’ long history of rough arrests was 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, at that time, Chief Dillon defended Flowers, saying that he wished he had another dozen officers just like him.
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 Caris said 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 surprise you to learn that Key West police officers even beat up a blind man? Well, this headline appeared in the June 21, 2002, issue of the Blue Paper: “Blind Man Abused by Police May Sue.” Three Key West police officers were involved in 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.”
So, if there was ever a right time for Key Westers to demand the creation of an independent police oversight board, 2002 was that time. And the Key West City Charter provided a way to do it. You may or may not know that the City Charter includes a wondrous provision that allows citizens to make law. Here is how that works. A group of citizens can form a committee and simply ask the City Commission to pass a law. If the Commission agrees that such a law is needed and passes the law, that's the end of the matter. But if the Commission fails to act, the citizen committee can launch a petition drive to try to get the question on the ballot for the next election..So a group of Key Westers formed a committee they called The Committee for a Citizen Review Board (CCRB). It was co-chaired by Attorney Sam Kaufman and black activist Peggy Grant. They asked the City Commission to create some kind of police oversight board to make sure that citizen complaints were given fair consideration. The committee would have probably been reasonably happy with almost anything-- even something like a semi-toothless board controlled by City Manager Avael, known to be in the pocket of the police union. But Weekley, Avael and Dillon opposed even that-- and the City Commission took no action.
At this point, the members of the CCRB could have just laid down and played dead. But they didn't. With the help of several lawyers on the committee, they wrote a law that would create an independent CRB. Their proposed law would even give the CRB subpoena power. Then they attached the proposed law to petitions and began to collect signatures to try to get the question on the ballot for the next election-- November 2002. Signatures were submitted to the office of the Supervisor of Elections weekly to ensure that those signing the petition were registered voters in Key West. A large percentage were rejected, however, often because they were unreadable. Committee members learned not to collect signatures in bars. In any event, when the deadline to qualify to get the CRB question on the ballot came and went, the CCRB was short by a hundred or so signatures. CCRB members were disappointed, but they vowed to try again the following year.
But wait! As it turned out, the members of the City Commission wanted to get a couple of questions on the ballot and they, too, had missed the deadline-- so they asked then-Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer to extend the deadline. Harry told them that he would be glad to do that, but that he would also have to extend the deadline for the CCRB. Good golly, Miss Molly! Mayor Weekley protested, arguing that any deadline extension should be for the City Commission only. But Harry stood firm. As a result, it only took the CCRB a few days to collect the additional signatures needed.
But then came the real challenge for the members of the CCRB. They now had to figure out how to conduct a real election campaign to convince potential voters to vote "yes" to create a CRB. And they had virtually no budget for ads, yard signs and all the other stuff needed to run an election campaign. But the other side had no budget problem. The police union spent thousands on big ads telling voters to "Back the Blue" by voting "no" on a CRB. Some Key West police officers, on duty and in uniform, went door-to-door promoting a "no" vote. Mayor Weekley and Police Chief Dillon had weekly slots on Bill Becker's morning radio show, and much of that time was spent promoting a "no" vote on the CRB issue. City Manager Avael also used his TV show to promote a "no" vote.
On the vote-yes side, the CCRB was able to raise enough money for a few ads in the daily paper and some small yard signs. And the Blue Paper donated one or two pages a week to the campaign. But as far as campaign visibility was concerned, the no-vote people were stomping the CCRB into the ground. But a funny thing happened on election day 2002. More than 60 percent of the voters who went to the polls voted "yes" to create a CRB! A landslide victory!
Another funny thing happened when members of the CCRB took a copy of the law they had written into then-City Attorney Bob Tischenkel's office on the morning after the election. As background, you need to know that the City Charter provision that allows citizens to make law spells out two forms of law that can be made-- a simple ordinance and an amendment to the Charter. There's a lot of difference between the two. The City Commission can gut an ordinance at will. But to change any part of an amendment to the Charter requires another vote of the people. So, when the members of the CCRB handed Tischenkel a copy of the law recently approved by the voters, they emphasized to him that it was an amendment to the Charter. "No it's not," he responded. "It's an ordinance."
"Look at the title at the top of the petition signed by the voters," members of the CCRB pointed out. "It says 'Amendment to the City Charter." They said later that they could see the blood seem to drain out of Tischenkel's face.
How did the law to create a CRB turn out to be an amendment to the City Charter rather than a simple ordinance? Here's the inside skinny. The Charter says that, when a citizen committee wants to launch a petition drive to try to create a new law, the City Clerk must write the petition language and provide the petitions. But back in 2002, City Clerk Cheri Smith said she was too busy to do that and, instead, simply provided samples of previous petitions. And it just so happens that all of the samples she provided were headlined "Amendment to the City Charter." So the members of the CCRB who were writing the proposed law simply copied the headline from the sample petitions provided by City Clerk Smith.
NOTE: Although this is a history story dating back 13 years, a couple of the players are still active in City government. Jimmy Weekley is no longer mayor but he is still on the City Commission and Cheri Smith is still City Clerk. And if you are keeping up with current news, you know that they were both members of the Canvassing Board who voted, after the City elections two weeks ago that Bob Dean lives in that little apartment on Bahama Street in Key West and not with his wife in that big house in Key Haven, which is outside the Key West city limits. I'm just sayin' . . .
Because the Key West CRB was created by the people and not the government, it is often used as a model for police oversight boards being created in cities all around the country. In addition to reviewing and investigating complaints, the board also has the authority to make recommendations concerning police policy. Also, CRB rules have recently been amended to give the board the authority to investigate certain events without a citizen complaint.
But some critics of the CRB here have alleged that the CRB is weak--virtually toothless-- because members can only make recommendations to the police chief, rather than implement punitive action against rogue police officers. But keep in mind that the findings and recommendations that come out of the CRB are public. And that the police chief has to respond to these recommendations within 30 days. And his response is also public. And transparency is power. Also keep in mind that the CRB's recommendations can also be forwarded to other law enforcement agencies, such as the State Attorney's office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and even the U.S,Department of Justice (DOJ). In fact, the DOJ is currently investigating the Charles Eimers case after receiving a complaint from the Key West CRB. Eimers died while being arrested by KWPD officers on Thanksgiving Day 2013. Subsequently, the City of Key West paid the Eimers family $900,000.
But even fans of the CRB are sometimes critical of the fact that the members of the board dismiss more citizen complaints than they sustain. Just last June, many Key Westers were aghast when the CRB voted 4-2 to exonerate the officer who tased Matthew Murphy back in 2011. Murphy remains in a Jacksonville hospital in a vegetative state. A federal lawsuit is reportedly pending. But the CRB was not created to simply "get" cops. It was created to give citizens a place to go if they feel that they have been treated unfairly by the KWPD. But complaints are often insufficient and/or there may simply not be enough evidence to prove anything. And, of course, most cops flatly refuse to cooperate with the CRB, on advice of the police union. Add to this the fact that the CRB is hardly one of the City's big-budget departments. The board's $77,000 budget barely covers the salary of the Executive Director, basic attorney's fees and other basic expenses. The CRB simply does not have the money to finance complicated independent investigations.
But the Key West CRB is still a big deal! Just ask any of the "founders"-- the members of the Committee for a Citizen Review Board (CCRB)-- one of which has just been elected to the City Commission. They will simply remind you of how it was back in 2002, when citizen complaints often just disappeared into a black hole inside the police department. And there is one more fact. According to NACOLE, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the mere existence of a civilian police oversight board changes police behavior.
Help us continue to bring you local investigative journalism... Click on the image to make a donation.