A former police chief of Biscayne Park and two officers are charged with falsely pinning four burglaries on a teenager just to impress village leaders with a perfect crime-solving record.
But the accusations revealed in federal court last month left out far uglier details of past policing practices in tranquil Biscayne Park, a leafy wedge of suburbia just north of Miami Shores.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald suggest that during the tenure of former chief Raimundo Atesiano, the command staff pressured some officers into targeting random black people to clear cases.
“If they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries,” one cop, Anthony De La Torre, said in an internal probe ordered in 2014. “They were basically doing this to have a 100% clearance rate for the city.”
In a report from that probe, four officers — a third of the small force — told an outside investigator they were under orders to file the bogus charges to improve the department’s crime stats. Only De La Torre specifically mentioned targeting blacks, but former Biscayne Park village manager Heidi Shafran, who ordered the investigation after receiving a string of letters from disgruntled officers, said the message seemed clear for cops on the street.
“The letters said police were doing a lot of bad things,” Shafran told the Herald. “It said police officers were directed to pick up people of color and blame the crimes on them.”
Beyond the apparent race targeting, the report — never reviewed in village commission meetings — described a department run like a dysfunctional frat house. It outlines allegations that the brass openly drank on duty, engaged in a host of financial shenanigans and that the No. 2 in command during the period, Capt. Lawrence Churchman, routinely spouted racist and sexist insults.
Amid the probe, Atesiano abruptly resigned in 2014. Afterward, there was a stark change in village crime-busting statistics.
During his roughly two-year tenure as chief, 29 of 30 burglary cases were solved, including all 19 in 2013. In 2015, the year after he left, records show village cops did not clear a single one of 19 burglary cases.
Village leaders say they have since overhauled the department, calling the ousted police chief’s actions “appalling.”
Atesiano, 52, has strongly denied the allegations. He pleaded not guilty in the federal case and is now awaiting trial on charges of civil-rights violations. Two of his former officers, Raul Fernandez and Charlie Dayoub, also have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Sources say they are cooperating against their one-time boss.
The federal case doesn’t raise allegations of racial profiling, but records show the false charges were filed against a black Haitian-American teen identified only as T.D. in the indictment. Whether or how many other blacks might have been targets is unclear. State and local arrest records differ somewhat, but of the 30 burglary arrests documented in 2013 and 2014, nearly all were of black males.
But at least one other case is under review in an ongoing investigation: the arrest of a black transient man, Erasmus Banmah, 35, who was charged with five vehicle burglaries on the same day in February 2014. Each was dropped immediately by prosecutors when Biscayne Park cops failed to cooperate, records show.
The former chief argues he demanded diligence from his officers, not illegal actions, His attorney pointed blame at Atesiano’s former underlings for any resulting problematic arrests.
“Encouraging, or even demanding, that public employees raise their performance levels to meet the citizens’ expectations is not an invitation for those public employees to cut corners or falsify documents,” his defense attorney, Richard Docobo, said.
Over the last decade, the department has also seen an officer arrested on charges of holding his wife hostage, a troubled officer sued for excessive force and another officer charged with beating a suspect.
At the helm was Atesiano, a burly and mustachioed officer who was hired in 2008 and worked his way through the ranks while penning a column in the village newsletter warning residents to beware of trespassers and to report people crossing the railroad track.
Atesiano had come to the village after an earlier case involving a doctored arrest record. In 2006, Atesiano, then a sergeant in Sunny Isles Beach, agreed to leave there after investigators discovered he’d forged a man’s name on a notice to appear in court after police arrested him for marijuana. Prosecutors told him to resign or face arrest.
Atesiano left but landed with Biscayne Park two years later and rebuilt his reputation. The village named him officer of the year in 2011. Two years later, he was promoted to replace the retiring chief and he immediately began touting impressive progress in solving home break-ins and property crimes, always a priority issue in otherwise quiet suburbs.
“This year, as we stand, we have a 100 percent clearance rate on burglary cases in the Village of Biscayne Park,” Atesiano declared to hearty applause during a commission meeting in July 2013. “This is the first time I’ve ever known that to happen in any department that I’ve ever been in.”
Many of the officers’ other complaints focused on Churchman, a former Sweetwater cop who was second in command in the village. Like his boss, Churchman also had a history with altered records. Sweetwater had demoted him for allegations of falsifying education records to earn an extra $40 a week. Biscayne Park hired him in 2008.
In the report, seven fellow officers described the captain as Atesiano’s enforcer, belittling cops, threatening them with firing, and bullying them into paying cash fees for working off-duty security gigs and into paying insurance deductibles with cash when they got into an accident in their police cruisers. His disdain for minorities also was “common knowledge,” Officer Harrison told the investigator. The report quotes officers saying Churchman used racial, homophobic and gender slurs.
“The captain has said on several different occasions he doesn’t want any n—–s, f—–s or women b—–s working at Biscayne Park,” Harrison said, according to Scott’s investigative report.
Churchman, through his attorney, denied using such language. In response to questions from the Herald, lawyer Kristi Kassebaum issued a statement quoting her client: “That is a ridiculous lie. That’s just not the way I think and certainly not the kind of language I use in public or in private.”