Police Scandal: Miami River Cops scandal in the 1980s
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The article explains the changes in the screening, selection, and hiring of Miami police officers in the early 1980s that contributed to corruption of significant proportions - Police Scandal: Miami River Cops scandal in the 1980s introduction. It is hypothesized that police corruption occurred as a result of both social structural (or community) changes, and departmental problems. These factors are documented, as is the extent of police corruption. Screening, selection, and hiring practices for this period are addressed, particularly those related to testing procedures. The Miami Police Department and the hiring practices which affected the department were discussed. Recommendations are made regarding future police hiring and supervision practices.
Police Scandal: Miami River Cops scandal in the 1980s
Corruption is a major concern of public agencies, but for law enforcement agencies it is of special concern. Of all criminal justice agencies the police are the most widely dispersed, readily accessible, and widely visible agents of the criminal justice system (Carter, 1985). Corruption of police officers can arise out of their individual factors or social-structural factors specific to organizational characteristics (Walker, 1983). There were three famous hypotheses about police corruption. The first hypothesis involves psychological or individual factors and blames society-at-large, in that citizens provide little gifts and gratuities that can lead to bribes and ultimately no more aggressive criminal activity by police officers. The second is a structural or affiliation hypothesis, which is similar to the society-at-large model, although it arises from police cynicism based on a loss of faith in humankind; ultimately, corruption becomes acceptable with the department. The third or rotten-apple hypothesis focuses on the individual officer and the effects of poor recruitment. The rotten-apple explanation is offered by Delattre (1989) as the primary explanation for the River Cops incidents in Miami; although he notes that neither structural nor rotten-apple theories are adequate by themselves nor mutually exclusive.
The River Cops cases and other cases of police misbehavior in Miami are notable because they appear to have involved social-structural elements, community pressures that influenced both organizational and individual behavior. It appears that a confluence of structural and individual factors led to a period of corruption on a major scale in the Miami Police Department. Four questions are examined in this article. First, was there significantly more corruption in the Miami Police Department subsequent to a period of community problems and a need to rapidly increase hiring? Second, did poor screening and selection practices lead to greater levels of corruption? Third, was poor supervision of these Officers, especially those less qualified, the problem? Fourth, if any or all of these were the case, what prevented the department from correcting the problems? An understanding of these events can help other agencies and communities facing similar circumstances.
Three drug raids on the Miami River led to the discovery of Miami’s worst police scandals. The first occurred in late May 1985. Miami police officers reported seizing 850 pounds of cocaine hidden beneath the deck of a boat at Nuta’s Boat Yard on the Miami River and arrested the smugglers. It was the largest seizure in the city’s history, but one of the smugglers said that over 1,000 pounds of cocaine was on the boat. As a result of this discrepancy, an investigation began. In the meantime, the second incident occurred at another boat yard (Tamiami Marine) on the night of July 13, 1985. At least 10 Miami police officers, some in uniform, boarded a boat on the Miami River which held 400 kilograms of cocaine. They threw the smugglers into the water and confiscated the drugs. The smugglers survived. The third incident, at Jones Boat Yard, was the most serious. On July 28, 1985, eight Miami police officers, some in uniform, went to the boat yard and stormed the Mary C. The six smugglers unloading 350 kilograms of cocaine jumped in the water and three of them died of drowning. These eight police officers were the first officers to be indicated. As the earlier investigation developed, 11 other officers were indicted, and these 19 came to be known as the “River Cops”. All of the officers were carrying out their official duties as police officers when they seized the illegal drugs that they eventually sold to drug dealers. Circumstances caught up with them, however, when they attempted to sell the Jones Boat Yard drugs to covert drug agents, who arrested the officers. Almost all of the 19 River Cops were convicted by early 1988, 3 for murder (with one murder case pending), with 6 receiving sentences of 30 or more years. Two are still fugitives from justice. Seven of the eight original River Cops were convicted and received an average of 24 years in federal prison.
Personnel problems in the Miami Police Department apparently went deeper than just the River Cops. Almost 100 officers were relieved of duty from January 1, 1985 through early 1988 (“Miami Police Drug Scandal,” 1988). By early 1988, 77 Miami police officers, including the River Cops, had been fired or suspended, or accused of misconduct after they resigned. Of the 77 officers, 72 were among 594 recruits hired in a major personnel increase that began in 1980. Speculation was that recruitment, screening, and selection procedures were in part responsible for the firing suspension and/ or criminal conviction of about 12% of the cohort of officers hired between June 1980 and June 1983. Delattre (1989), who gained information via discussions with Miami police personnel, concluded that “Sloppy field training, inadequate supervision, and an ineffective Internal Affairs Division permitted them to behave with contempt toward the law”. However, the stage for corruption in Miami was set by several political, legal, and organizational events occurring both in the community and in the department. These included racial and ethnic problems, affirmative-action requirements in hiring and poor departmental supervision practices. An examination of the interaction of these three main factors in the years preceding 1985 may explain why the River Cops incidents took place. Official departmental data, summaries of official documents and newspaper reports, and interviews with supervisors within the department’s personnel unit are used to develop an explanation for this illustrative case of police corruption.
THE MIAMI POLICE DEPARTMENT:
The Miami Police Department’s budget had not grown sufficiently over the years to provide the officers necessary to address increases in crime and to replace experienced officers, mostly White (non-Hispanic), who resigned during the difficult years of 1979 and 1980. These resignations contributed to an increase in the attrition rate from 7% to 16% per year in the years after 1979 (although some later returned), and these positions were not filled. In the years prior to 1980, personnel strength decreased because positions were eliminated or frozen when officers resigned or retired. Criminal activity from 1978 to 1980 increased 53%, but the Miami Police Department’s budget increased only 26%. The police budget submitted to the City of Miami for fiscal year 1979-80 called for 961 total positions. The department had 777 sworn officers in 1974 but only 654 sworn officers in 1980, most of whom had worked long hours due to a manpower shortage created by lack of funding over several years.
When confronted with riots, the Mariel influx, increased drug traffic, and the subsequent increase in crime, there simply were not enough personnel available, especially experienced officers, to control the situation effectively. It was not until the 1980-81 fiscal year that the departmental budget began to catch up with the 53% increase in crime and the majority of that money went to the hiring of new police officers.
HIRING PRACTICES OF THE MIAMI POLICE DEPARTMENT:
Interviews by the authors with former administrative staff of the department found that recruitment prior to 1979 was not considered to have been a problem (Background Investigations Unit supervisor, personal communication, March 1986). Usually between 200 and 300 individuals would apply for any 60 – 80 positions that were available as a result of attrition. About one out of three became police officers. After budgetary increases in 1980-81, there were over 300 new positions to fill with an additional 100 positions added annually due to attrition, accelerated by the departure of many White Officers. Between 1979 and 1983, the Miami Police Department hired approximately 60% of its entire sworn force, Of 1,040 positions in May 1985, over 600, or 58%, were new hires.
More applicants were screened out in the 1980s than the 1970s. Between 1979 and 1984, more than 5,000 people applied for only 600 jobs. Due to the pressure to hire new officers, particularly minorities and women, the number of tests given was increased from one every 3 to 4 months in previous years to one a month. As a result, classes of recruits began monthly instead of one or two times a year. Prior to 1979, the hiring process took approximately 9months. After 1979, the process took half of that time. Recruitment of all potential city employees was done by the City’s Human Resources Department (now the Department of Personnel Management). The majority of local media recruitment efforts were directed to minority groups who were residents of the City of Miami.
The hiring process required screening by the Human Resources Department with a written test, called an “academic screen”, and a psychological examination. This “psychological battery” was administered by the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago. Both components were validated by them, reportedly using over 1,000 subjects. The psychological battery consisted of an “EMO Questionnaire,” which they were told was based on the MMPI, a “Work Interest Index”, which involved looking at pictures of occupations and selecting ones that they liked, and a “temperament comparator”, which was an adjective check list. The goal was to measure “fitness for duty”. All applicants were ranked based on the combined scores of the psychological and academic examinations by the testing organization. A register with the ranked names of all successful applicants was submitted to the police department. The breakdown of scores for the academic and psychological examinations was never known.
Police department hiring steps (at that time) included a background investigation, approval by a committee made up of the personnel unit (section) commander and two background investigations supervisors, approval of candidates by the Section Colonel, and approval by the Assistant Chief. If approved through this point, the file was returned to the background investigations unit. The personnel unit then initiated paperwork and scheduled the hiring date. This was followed by training, both in-service and at the academy. If the individual completed the training, he or she became a Miami police officer. Prior to 1981, the oral interview was used as a screening mechanism, but was found that no exclusions from employment were due to interview. Also, no one was trained in how to conduct these interviews, and there were questions of liability. The interview was continued only as a matter of form, but not used to disqualify candidates.
The majority of the screening and selection procedures centered on the background investigation, which included 13 “screens”, or areas targeted for investigation for each applicant. These included the driving record, employment history, graduation from an accredited high school, citizenship, credit history, the physical agility test, neighborhood checks, medical exams, and a polygraph examination. After 1981, until 1987, exclusion from employment was based on admissions made, because the polygraph results could not be “used as the sole disqualifying factor”, as mandated by the consent decree (U.S. v. The City of Miami, 1977). The last screen was for drugs. Prior to 1979, a candidate’s use of marijuana within the past 6 months disqualified that person as a candidate, and any use of cocaine, herein, or other similar drug led to automatic disqualification. After 1979, until 1987, exclusion from employment became dependent on whether the person’s life-style showed routine use of drugs or only experimentation, although exclusion was still automatic if heroin had ever been used. If cocaine had been used, it was dependent on the frequency use. It should be noted, however, that it was almost impossible determine whether candidates ever used drugs without asking them as part of the polygraph. If they stated they never used drugs, and a deception appeared, they could not be disqualified from consideration based solely on the deception without the admission. Records indicated that 7 of the first 13 Miami River cops arrested had a drug use background. By 1987, anyone who had ever used an illegal drug was disqualified as a police candidate.
Several other hiring criteria were relaxed during the period from 1980-1986. These included a lower driving standard, mail verifications of employment (rather than personal), acceptance of the GED rather than graduation from an accredited high school, and acceptance of a poorer credit history (the “whole record” was used rather than disqualification for a single “blemish”). Strength tests and shooting requirements were relaxed to lower barriers to women, and the swimming requirement was dropped in 1983 as it adversely affected Blacks. There was considerable confusion over verification of citizenship status due to the large numbers of immigrants. Most importantly, however investigations were often relatively superficial because the staff of the Background Investigations Unit was reduced from 22 to 30 after 1981 due to the emphasis on hiring rather than disqualification of candidates.
All individuals who passed on all the above criteria were hired. No longer could the department be as selective as in the past. The goal had been to fill the positions with “qualified” personnel, instead of the “top qualified” personnel, as in the past. Proportionately more new hires were Hispanics in the 1980s because there were more applicants from this group.
It appears that weakened screening procedures combines with the urgent need for new officers, affirmative action mandates, and inadequate supervision permitted a number of marginally qualified individuals to become police officers, including the River Cops. About three fourths of the almost 80 officers dismissed or suspended by 1987 were from the group that experienced more relaxed standards. The number of officers that were eventually relieved from duty rose to 100 (“Miami Police Drug Scandal”, 1988), although not all were dismissed. During this time some officers resigned with no questions asked and others returned to work following suspensions lasting two years. Concern is not so much with the number but the seriousness of the charges. Of the 72 initially identified, 20 were involved in conspiracy and/or murder, 15 were selling or using cocaine, and 4 were involved in other types of drug sales. All of the 19 River Cops were Hispanics; 3 were convicted in federal court of murder, 1 who was indicted for murder is still a fugitive and the remaining were convicted of various types of conspiracy. Sentences have averaged over 23 years.
For the most part, Delattre (1989) and others appear to be correct. The River Cops case indicates that both “rotten apples” and “rotten structures” must be addressed to combat the problem of corruption. The Miami Police Department faced personnel problems at the same time that the community experienced increased crime, especially greater drug trafficking, as well as major community social problems. These problems were not addressed adequately by community leaders. Miami and Dade County lacked an immediate response to social changes brought on by the Mariel influx, several racially sensitive incidents involving law enforcement in the county, and requirements for minority hiring within the department.
Community problems led to problems in hiring, especially those related to affirmative action. There were significant losses of seasoned officers at all ranks to other departments in the area. Although predominantly White, these officers were from all ethnic and racial groups in the department. Very difficult demands were placed on hiring procedures designed in a racially and ethnically polarized community, and standards for supervision were lowered. Police officers were hired who would not have been hired in the past. The stage was set for corruption.
The quality of supervision suffered. Disciplinary actions dropped significantly up to and after 1980 possibly in response to concerns about appeals and the results of those appeals. Delattre (1989) concluded that “supervision was lax, even nonexistent” (p.77). Where was an internal affair in the Miami Police Department? Where was the pressure to break up a situation that was getting out of control? What became of the informal controls within the organization that can defeat peer pressure to break rules (cf. McCormack, 1989)? The fact that there was more Hispanic officer involvement in misbehavior did not appear to be as significant as the fact that any group of individuals with the kinds of opportunity presented in the Miami illegal drug market may be susceptible to corruption. Somehow the department lost the ability to manage these individuals both before and during their illegal behavior.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE MIAMI EXPERIENCE:
How can corruption be defeated in law enforcement and other agencies whose personnel are faced with the great enticements provided by the immense profits from illegal drug trafficking? Langer (1989) notes that “drug trafficking and drug-related crime … are so pervasively corrupting that police confront almost impossible obstacles when they attempt to move against them” (p.293). Police corruption is rarely the topic of empirical research, and the secretive nature of law enforcement agencies often defeats such research. Does corruption in this very profitable drug-trafficking scenario sometimes go high enough that procedures to detect and defeat it cannot be implemented in some agencies? Weld (1988), citing the River Cops as an instance of progressive personal deviance, argues that public corruption is underrated nationally.
At the organizational level, the development of a police force free of corruption requires community and political support, high standards, carefully implemented screening procedures, and good training and supervision after hiring. Corrective steps have been taken to strengthen the hiring process in Miami, particularly the use of better background investigations and improved testing. The primary goals of the process should be the maintenance of high standards at selection and during field training and supervision on the job. When these goals cannot be attained, hiring policies must be changed through action at all levels-in the recruitment process, in the department, and with community leaders.
Corruption, however, involves many elements, especially individual integrity, which kis difficult to identify in hiring procedures. There is no test for potential corruption, even though specific behaviors, such as drug abuse, can be identified. McCarthy (1976) states that “no stereotyped measures or set of measures will guarantee the integrity of a policeman. Integrity develops from a set of values in the minds and hearts of the people who are police” (p.12) McCarthy (1976) suggests that higher personnel values require less control and lower values demand higher administrative controls. But how is it possible to select officers who have “higher values”? Certainly one of the goals of personnel selection must be consideration of any characteristic that may be detrimental to performance. For these reasons the criteria used in the selection and hiring of personnel is of critical importance (cf. Inwald, 1985). However, in stating that sound selection practices should yield less need for “values education”, disciplinary procedures, and ongoing supervision, Hancock and McClung (1984) assert that a uniform set of criteria that are valid and reliable do not exist. Added to the problems of selection and hiring is the fact that the resources of many police departments are limited and often under rigorous constraints. Wasted resources in time and money are the result of poor personnel selection in police departments and other criminal justice agencies, as well.
Although strengthened selection and training are critical first steps, it is also necessary that procedures be in place to discipline or dismiss problem officers as soon as possible. Even experienced supervisors and higher-level administrators can fail if there is community or departmental pressure not to enforce organizational rules. Problems still exist in Miami, especially in adhering to the goals of affirmative action, a problem that has now appeared in the fire department. The Miami Police Department has a strong union and a civil service board that is reported to adversely affect the city’s efforts to discipline or dismiss problem individuals. It remains to be seen if new hiring criteria can be applied successfully to selection and departmental administration in the future.
Any public agency, but especially a law enforcement agency, has the responsibility to correct deficiencies within its system for the benefit of the public it serves. Questions remain as to whether law enforcement agencies can police themselves effectively under conditions that now exist. Are additional outside controls necessary? Political officials and community leaders must address these issues within the context of sound law enforcement. They must demand that better screening procedures are used and that adequate training is implemented. They must work with law enforcement officials to ensure that post-employment drug testing is used, that there are periodic mandated changes in assignments and supervision, and that constant checks on internal operations are in place and monitored periodically. Neither the community nor the Miami Police Department was addressing these fundamental administrative tasks on the midnight shift in the summer of 1985, and the department and the city have paid the price.
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