By DAVID SMILEY AND STEVE ROTHAUS, dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com
The 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 them beating a man in a South Beach park are going to be fired, according to city officials.
On Monday, City Commissioner Michael Góngora said he was told by Miami Beach’s city manager that the city intends to kick officers Frankly Forte and Eliut Hazzi off the police force.
“I was personally disgusted by the actions taken by them and have been pushing the city administration quite some time to commence termination proceedings,” he said.
Babak Movahedi, president of Miami Beach Gay Pride, said he was glad the gay community “stood strong” and pressured Beach officials to take action.
“It sets a precedence 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. ... This gives you a prime example that if the community is together and speaks with one voice, that anything can be accomplished. When any community member is discriminated, we should not stand for it. And we did not.”
Though the alleged incident involving the officers happened in early 2009, the announcement that the city plans to fire the men, who would be the third and fourth Miami Beach police officers fired this month, comes on the heel of a seven-week stretch in which Miami Beach police have been involved in two controversial incidents.
On Memorial Day, 11 officers — seven from Miami Beach and four from Hialeah — shot more than 100 rounds during a fatal, videotaped shooting of a driver on Collins Avenue who is accused of trying to run over police and may have been shooting from his car.
Then on July 3, Officer Derick Kuilan — one of the officers who fired his weapon during the Memorial Day shooting — crashed his ATV into a man and woman on the beach, seriously injuring both. Kuilan was on-duty and allegedly partying with another officer, Rolando Gutierrez, at the Clevelander before hopping onto his ATV with a woman he met at a bachelorette party.
Mayor Matti Herrera Bower has said Gutierrez was drinking that night, but police have not said whether Kuilan had alcohol in his system.
Both Kuilan and Gutierrez were fired. On Monday, the state attorney’s office said it will hold a Tuesday afternoon press conference with Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega in which new details about the crash will be released.
Gene Gibbons, attorney for both Kuilan and Gutierrez, could not be immediately reached for comment.
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 Los Angeles resident Harold Strickland in February 2010.
Strickland, a former Beach resident, said that about 1 a.m. 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 him in the 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, but the charges were dropped.
Oscar 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 year-long 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.”
City Manager Jorge Gonzalez said Monday that the two officers will be told why they are being fired in a hearing scheduled for Aug. 1 and will have a chance to fight for their jobs.
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.”