MIAMI (AP) — Three new police officers were fired for making comments on a group chat about using Miami's primarily black neighborhoods for target practice, a newspaper reported Friday.
Officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin were let go on Dec. 23, after an internal affairs investigation concluded that they violated department policies, said the Miami Herald (http://hrld.us/2hxDZZp), citing documents it obtained.
The remarks angered local civil rights activists keeping tabs on a department that is currently scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of excessive force.
"It's indicative of the casual conversations and comments that young and even more seasoned police officers are used to making without a lot of repercussions," said Julia Dawson, an activist who has been part of law enforcement oversight panels in Miami.
The Miami police department confirmed that officers Bergnes, Valdes and Alcin were fired, but did not explain the reasons behind the dismissals.
In a statement Friday, Chief Rodolfo Llanes said an internal affairs investigation found the officers' actions "inconsistent with the mission and values of our department."
Attorney Stephan Lopez, who represents the three officers, told The Associated Press that his clients were joking and that the comments were taken out of context. He pointed out that Alcin is African-American and Valdes has a black grandfather.
"They wanted to make an example out of this. But they made an example of the wrong people," Lopez said. "These guys didn't shoot anybody. They were clearly joking around. They are kids. You don't terminate them the day before Christmas Eve."
The incident happened June 30, when the three officers responded to other rookie colleagues' questions about shooting ranges in a WhatsApp chat they often used to communicate, the paper said. According to documents obtained by the Herald, the officers-in-training shared department information on that thread.
It said the documents show Bergnes sarcastically suggested the friend looking for a shooting range try a Bank of America, adding "they'll even give you some cash." He then suggested Model City — the police district that includes Liberty City and handles the bulk of the city's shootings — as another location.
Valdes suggested a particular intersection in the Overtown community, according to the paper. It added that Alcin followed up, saying Valdes "wouldn't understand" until he's worked there.
The next day, an officer warned them that their words were offensive even though she didn't think they were racist. "Your words can come back to bite you," she allegedly wrote.
A sergeant learned of the conversation and ordered one officer to apologize. He also wrote a memo to a lieutenant about the matter, according to the Herald. Internal affairs began an investigation and concluded on Dec. 19 that they broke social media, courtesy and responsibility rules, the paper said.
Lopez, the attorney, said it's too early to say whether he will file a lawsuit for wrongful termination or negotiate to get their jobs back. The officers were still on probation after being sworn in earlier this year.
Javier Ortiz, president of the police union, said he didn't agree with the "joking texts" but that it wasn't enough for dismissal. He said the city manager would "rather focus on text messages than the senseless killings and violent crime."
The incident came months after the city of Miami agreed to go under supervision of the U.S. Justice Department to reform its policing after a series of police shootings from 2008 to 2011. The agreement followed a report that questioned 33 police shootings, including seven black men and teenagers who were killed in a short time.
Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com