Three rookie Miami police officers fired two days before Christmas joked in a group chat with other cops about using predominantly black neighborhoods for target practice, an internal affairs investigation found this month.
“Anyone know of an indoor shooting range in Miami?” one officer asked.
“Go to model city they have moving targets,” replied another.
“There’s a range in overtown on 1 and 11. Moving targets and they don’t charge,” added a third.
Officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin told an investigator that they were joking, or just commenting on what they’d seen in the city during their training and weren’t trying to offend anyone. Alcin himself is African American, and Valdes has a black grandfather.
Still, their off-the-cuff remarks about two of the city’s historically black communities upset colleagues and supervisors, and came as the department is under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice following a spate of questionable police shootings. For department leaders, the officers’ remarks made them a liability both in future civil and criminal cases and in the community.
Go to model city they have moving targets.
Officer Kevin Bergnes in a June 30 WhatsApp chat
“It was senseless, young and reckless. It shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Justin Pinn, an African-American member of a civilian board tasked with monitoring Miami’s federal policing agreement. “Officers are supposed to be guardians not warriors. I don’t think what they expressed reflects the values of the department.”
Miami’s police union president, however, says the officers should have been reprimanded but not fired, since their “messages were in poor taste, but weren’t in anyway racial.” Their attorney, Stephan Lopez, said the city has taken his clients’ remarks out of context and blown them out of proportion.
“My clients are young kids. They’re young officers and they were off-duty” when making their comments, he said. “I can’t let their careers be tarnished when they engaged in no misconduct.”
The messages were in poor taste, but weren’t in any way racial.
Lt. Javier Ortiz, police union president
According to an internal affairs memo obtained by the Miami Herald, Bergnes, Valdes and Alcin were among a class of about 30 police officers who went through Miami’s police academy together last year and continued to communicate through a WhatsApp chat they called Post-22. For the most part, the young officers-in-training shared department info on the thread.
On June 30, in response to another officer’s question about shooting ranges, Bergnes mentioned the Stone Hart’s range near Country Walk. Then, Bergnes, known by friends as a wise guy, sarcastically suggested the officer try a Bank of America — “they’ll even give you some cash” — and then Model City, the police district that includes Liberty City and handles the bulk of the city’s shootings.
Forty minutes later, Valdes added that the intersection of First Avenue and 11th Street in Overtown was another good location, and joked that “they even run scenarios and pretend that they’re shooting heroin.” Alcin followed: “Valdes he wouldn’t understand till he work there.”
Unsurprisingly, some of the comments offended several officers in the chat. The next day, after speaking with a friendly sergeant, Officer Lawanda Lawson warned the trio that even though she didn’t think they were racist, their words were offensive.
“I can take a joke but that one was distasteful,” she wrote. “And even tho it probably wasn’t meant that way, becareful ur words can come back to bite u.”
“But the bank is ok right?” Bergnes replied.
Being young you do a lot of dumb things. Should it bar them from ever becoming a police officer? They’d have a tall task to make amends in the community.
Justin Pinn, member of policing oversight board
Later, Sgt. Travis Lindsey scolded Bergnes, had him apologize on WhatsApp and wrote a memo to a lieutenant memorializing their discussion. Nevertheless, internal affairs got involved.
When interviewed, Bergnes said he was referring to a shooting scene he’d witnessed in Liberty City a few days before where the victim was running away from the shooter. Valdes and Alcin said they were referencing what they’d witnessed in Overtown.
The trio was found on Dec. 19 to have violated multiple department policies involving social media, courtesy and responsibility. All three were considered probationary officers at the time they were let go, which gave Miami’s city manager the leeway to fire them without going through the procedures afforded full-time officers.
As several Miami officers mentioned during the course of the investigation, the officers’ comments came amid national tensions between police and black communities. While not as stark, the text string is reminiscent of a past North Miami Beach Police Department practice in which officers used the mug shots of black men for target practice.
Lopez, their attorney, also argues that their texts are not as bad as recent scandals in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach, where veteran cops used racial slurs or shared offensive pictures, like a Black Monopoly board where every square leads to jail. He said the officers are going to sue to keep their jobs on the grounds that, ironically, the city is discriminating against them.
“Two of the officers have black blood pumping through their veins,” he said. “To say that they’re racist is outrageous and ludicrous.”
Pinn, the policing oversight board member, said the troubling chat string reflects the importance and necessity of community policing and sensitivity training. If the three officers were more invested in the neighborhoods they were laughing about, he said, their tone and perspective would probably have been different.
“Being young you do a lot of dumb things,” he said. “Should it bar them from ever becoming a police officer? They’d have a tall task to make amends in the community.”