Two Miami Beach police officers accused of yelling anti-gay epithets at a tourist, kicking him and falsely arresting him after he called 911 to report their beating of another gay man in a South Beach park are going to be fired, city officials said.
Officers Frankly Forte and Eliut Hazzi learned Monday of the city's intent to kick them off the police force and were relieved of duty without pay, according to City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. He said a hearing in which the officers will have a chance to fight for their jobs has been scheduled for Aug. 1.
The two dismissals would follow the firings of two other Miami Beach officers earlier this month, after Officer Derick Kuilan crashed his ATV into a man and woman on the sands of the beach following an alleged drunken South Beach spree with fellow officer Rolando Gutierrez on July 3 while the two were on duty.
Prosecutors said "recent developments in the investigation" into the ATV crash will be released during a Tuesday press conference with Miami Beach police, during which it is expected that the state attorney's office will announce that charges will be filed against Kuilan.
Miami Beach police have been under increasing scrutiny during the past two months, going back to Memorial Day, when 11 officers — seven from Miami Beach and four from Hialeah — fired more than 100 rounds during a fatal, videotaped shooting on Collins Avenue of a driver accused of trying to run over police while possibly shooting a gun from his car. Four bystanders were wounded during the shooting, including a man who said he was shot by police.
But while Gonzalez said the allegations against the four officers were of concern, he added that the spate of incidents are unrelated and stressed that the alleged crime involving Forte and Hazzi happened more than two years before Kuilan crashed his ATV on the beach. "If there's any commonality at all, it's that all four [officers] are being terminated," Gonzalez said.
Forte and Hazzi have been under investigation by Miami Beach Internal Affairs and prosecutors since The Miami Herald reported on the alleged March 2009 beating and wrongful arrest of Strickland in February 2010.
Strickland, a former Beach resident who moved to Los Angeles, said that about 1 a.m. on March 13, 2009, he was visiting South Florida and wanted to see his old neighborhood. He walked past Flamingo Park near 14th Street and Michigan Avenue and said he saw two guys beating a man and kicking his head like "a football."
Strickland called 911, realizing as he described the beating that the two assailants — with guns, walkie-talkies and handcuffs — were undercover police officers. For nearly five minutes, Strickland spoke with a 911 dispatcher until he said the two men were "coming after me!" The men, later identified as Forte and Hazzi, approached Strickland and can be heard on the recording asking him why he is there, where he lives and if he has identification. Then the line went dead.
Strickland, who according to state attorney's office documents said the two officers repeatedly called him "fag and faggot," was arrested for loitering and prowling. The officers said they saw Strickland trying to get into parked cars before their run-in with Oscar Mendoza, but the charges were dropped.
Mendoza, the man Strickland says the two officers were beating, was arrested that night. Prosecutors later dropped charges of resisting arrest without violence.
After a nearly yearlong investigation, prosecutors also declined to press charges against Hazzi and Forte, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove the officers' guilt to a jury. Instead, they suggested Miami Beach police take "appropriate action."
Miami Beach police issued a statement Monday saying that although the "investigation concluded that no crime could be proven in relation to the officers' actions, serious questions were raised about their conduct during the incident."
The news that Hazzi and Forte are to be fired was welcomed by Babak Movahedi, president of Miami Beach Gay Pride, who said he was glad the gay community "stood strong" and pressured Beach officials to take action.
"It sets a precedent that you can't discriminate against anyone and get away with it. [Forte and Hazzi] tried to cover it up and arrested the guy. It's an abuse of power," Movahedi said. "Kudos to the city. They've taken it seriously."
After the state attorney's office closed the criminal investigation, Forte and Hazzi were brought back to the police station and assigned to administrative duty. In November, the ACLU of Florida filed a complaint in federal court against Miami Beach and the two officers individually. Strickland is seeking more than $15,000 in damages.
ACLU spokesman Derek Newton said his group is pleased the officers will be fired.
"It's a very satisfying outcome, assuredly, to demonstrate clearly that officers who violate the public trust and engage in misconduct will be subject to consequences," Newton said. "We think that's very positive and encouraging. We hope that it sets a standard for other communities in the region and state in addressing police misconduct."
However, Sgt. Alejandro Bello, president of the Miami Beach chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Hazzi and Forte are being fired unjustly because of the mounting pressure on the city during the last two months.
Bello said the officers were doing their jobs, and said Strickland's story that he was checking out his old neighborhood at 1 a.m. wasn't believable.
"After the ATV crash, there was a huge knee-jerk reaction to a lot of these different incidents going on right now," Bello said. "Instead of looking at the facts of the case, they are under a lot of pressure from the political powers to fire these two officers. It's just not right."
By David Smiley, David Ovalle and Steve Rothaus, The Miami Herald