May 10, 2021
‘A pattern of abuse and bias’: A Miami cop’s history of bad policing detailed in report
 
 
By Jay Weaver and Charles Rabin
 

One spring afternoon, a young Black school teacher picked up her 1-year-old baby at her mother’s Liberty City home and was pulled over by a Miami police sergeant named Javier Ortiz.

Ortiz told Octavia Johnson that he stopped her because he saw her buying drugs. When she denied it, he asked how she could afford her nearly new Dodge Charger and what she did for a living.

“Get the f--- outta here. Who would hire you with gold and tattoos?” Ortiz responded when she replied. The traffic stop fast turned uglier, leaving Johnson under arrest, her face pressed into pavement.

The confrontation more than a decade ago — just one of many detailed in a scathing two-year probe of Ortiz by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation — foreshadowed a career marked with similar on-duty incidents that would nonetheless see him rise to captain and, as a longtime union president, become a powerful and seemingly untouchable force in the Miami police department.

The unusual joint investigation, outlined in a 53-page FDLE report released earlier this month to the Miami Herald, doesn’t even delve into the string of racist comments and public clashes that have earned Ortiz a reputation as — depending on point of view — Miami’s most outspoken or offensive cop. He once ignited a social media battle with Beyoncé, for instance, over her “Formation” video about police brutality.

Instead, the report chronicles a largely unreported history of misconduct allegations and dubious arrests pointing to “a pattern of abuse and bias against minorities, particularly African-Americans” by the former SWAT commander. The report also found that Ortiz “has been known for cyber-stalking and doxing civilians who question his authority or file complaints against him.”

FDLE investigators, after interviewing more than a half-dozen people who had confrontations with Ortiz, found the allegations so credible that they referred their probe to the FBI last year to pursue potential criminal civil rights charges against him.

The report, though closed without any charges in February by the U.S. Justice Department, found Ortiz was the subject of a series of internal affairs investigations that appeared to have been strategically slowed down to help protect him, and more than 60 excessive force and other citizen complaints — including a handful that generated lawsuits costing nearly $600,000 to settle. Overall, the allegations against Ortiz are more about his abuse of police powers and bullying than brutality, though some encounters left scars — a female pharmacist, for instance, suffered a broken wrist in an arrest in Wynwood during Art Basel.

Still, sources familiar with the probe called the number of complaints against Ortiz “extraordinary” for an officer who has spent most of his 17-year career behind a desk as a supervisor and union boss.

ohnson, whose 2008 encounter is the earliest allegation of excessive force in the FDLE report, said she “would never forget” her humiliating treatment.

“I don’t understand how he still remains with the city,” Johnson, now a Brownsville Middle School teacher, told the Herald earlier this month. “I don’t know what it would take to put him away. But people like him, they don’t deserve more chances.”

CRITICS INCLUDE FORMER CHIEFS

She’s far from the only critic to question why the 41-year-old remains a Miami cop, let alone a high-ranking one. He’s clashed with several fellow officers over the years as well as with former police chiefs, who nevertheless say they have been thwarted in most efforts to discipline him. They’ve never even tried to dismiss him, citing his union leadership.

“I always thought Javi was going to retire in handcuffs. But it hasn’t happened yet,” retired Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa told the Herald. “He [always] did it under the auspices of the union, where you really can’t touch him unless he breaks the law.”

Though he lost a recent union election to lead Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police, there are reasons Ortiz built strong support in the ranks over the years and was elected three times to lead the union. Supporters say he’s smart, politically savvy and fought for higher wages and better pensions.

Alejandro Palacio, a lieutenant with the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department who has known Ortiz for about 15 years, praised his passion for the job and community, describing him as a “caring individual” who has committed himself to causes such as the Live Like Bella Foundation to help children with cancer.

Most notably, he has also often been the first and loudest voice to defend any cop facing public criticism — in Miami or elsewhere. “You are not going to find a stronger advocate for law enforcement,” Palacio told the Herald. “Protecting those who cannot protect themselves — that’s his credo.”

But, as union boss, Ortiz also proved a habitual provocateur.

In January 2020, Police Chief Jorge Colina issued the most severe punishment of Ortiz’s career, suspending him indefinitely. The move came not long after a bizarre public exchange with Miami’s only Black city commissioner, in which the Hispanic police captain also claimed to be partially Black. But the department didn’t detail reasons, saying he was under unspecified investigation. The punishment amounted to paid vacation because Ortiz continued to collect his $137,000 annual salary. Previously, Ortiz had received a few reprimands and one other shorter suspension in 2017 for attacking a woman on social media after she criticized a police officer for driving dangerously at high speeds.

Firing officers protected by strong unions is notoriously difficult, but Colina in the past successfully ousted two of them — one who wouldn’t talk to detectives about a murder he was suspected of having played a role in and the other for anti-Semitism. But in a recent interview Colina said it would be almost impossible to sack Ortiz. He called Ortiz using his union role for protection “problematic” but insisted his own options were limited, as “there are protections.”

Colina now says it was a call from the FDLE about the criminal probe that led to the yearlong suspension, not Ortiz’s offensive remarks to a Miami commissioner. Still, despite the additional allegations or racial bias detailed in the joint report and the fact that Ortiz has lost his union post, Colina — shortly before he retired himself last month — reinstated him once the Justice Department announced it had closed the previously undisclosed investigation last month.

At least for now, however, Ortiz’s new job will keep him off the street. The former SWAT commander is now in charge of the department’s electronic records.

Ortiz, though usually willing to defend his actions while union president, would not respond to questions from the Herald or discuss the allegations detailed in the FDLE report. Neither FDLE nor FBI investigators ever asked to interview Ortiz himself or his attorney. So, like many criminal investigations, the report is one-sided, focusing only on complaints and victim accounts.

But Robert Buschel, his defense attorney, said that the Justice Department’s decision to close the case amounted to an exoneration of his client.

In a statement to the Herald, Buschel blamed a small group of rival officers in the 1,400-member force for pushing the criminal investigation in a concerted effort to bring him down. Ortiz, a graduate of Christopher Columbus High School who studied criminal justice at Florida International University, joined the city’s police force in March 2004 and rose rapidly through the ranks and into union leadership.

“In each case, Captain Ortiz was cleared of all wrongdoing, even if Internal Affairs took too much time,” Buschel said. “Certain people who did not like Ortiz as their leader pushed the cases. But, after a year long system-wide look, no one made a case. He is looking forward to resuming his duties in the police department.”

According to the FDLE report, complaints by three current and former Miami officers — Nestor Francisco Garcia, Edwin Gomez and Rolando Erwin Davis — triggered the criminal probe in November 2018. But the agency also expanded it, reviewing lawsuits and interviewing witnesses and ultimately forwarding the report to the FBI for further review.

The FDLE report pointed out that at least seven investigations by Miami’s own internal affairs department went nowhere because state investigators suspect Ortiz was “shown favoritism” due to his union connections. Those in-house probes, sources familiar with them said, appeared to have been purposefully “slow-walked,” taking more than six months to investigate. Under a state statute known as the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights, if an investigation takes more than 180 days, a sworn officer cannot be disciplined.

The decision to close the joint probe without charges, coming at the end of the Trump administration, remains a bit murky, but the FDLE report cites both legal technicalities and courtroom realities. While the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami pushed for the case, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington ultimately chose not to charge Ortiz with any constitutional violations — mostly because some confrontations lacked enough physical evidence and others were outdated under the five-year statute of limitations, including the Octavia Johnson case.

Although the report doesn’t spell out this additional factor, sources told the Herald that prosecutors believed that it also would be difficult to make felony civil rights cases against him because most of the allegations didn’t result in serious injuries — unlike in cases involving police shootings or brutal arrests like the death last year of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police office.

But even without charges, the details of the state investigation written by special agents William Saladrigas and Walter Biddle are eye-opening. Overall, 44 citizen complaints and 18 use of force cases have been filed against Ortiz with the city’s Internal Affairs Division. Many allegations stemmed from working off-duty details at public events — a police program that he once managed — or from responding to backup street calls by fellow cops. Many of the confrontations also resulted in resisting arrest charges — charges later routinely dropped.

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS IN SETTLEMENTS

The report recounts more than a half-dozen allegations of rough or dubious arrests in detail, some that read like scenes from bad-cop movie scripts. Three lawsuits over excessive force stemming from them have also cost the city and a local music festival hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements — and far more in fees for staff attorneys, outside counsel and plaintiffs’ lawyers.

In one of the Ortiz lawsuits, settled for $65,000, an officer pulled Ruben Sebastian over for speeding on the MacArthur Causeway in July 2015. He then asked to examine packages in the back seat. Sebastian, saying they were groceries, refused to open the door, arguing the officer needed a search warrant.

Ortiz, called to the scene, ordered Sebastian to open the door to the back seat. When the driver refused, again citing the lack of a warrant, Ortiz grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out, saying he was under arrest, according to the FDLE report. At Ortiz’s direction, a third officer at the scene handcuffed Sebastian.

Ortiz, searching without a warrant, then asked if he had a weapon in the car. Sebastian said there was a firearm, which was stored in a “concealed-carry pouch” in the pocket of the driver’s side door. He also said that, as a private security guard for Miami-Dade Transit, he had a permit to carry it. Ortiz would later report the firearm was in “full view” and “un-holstered.” Sebastian wound up detained for six hours, complaining about the tightness of the flex-cuffs on his wrists.

Soon after the traffic stop, charges of resisting an officer and improperly exhibiting a weapon were dropped, but the confrontation with Ortiz still had serious consequences for Sebastian. He got fired from his security job.

A couple of years later in 2017, Melissa Lopez and her boyfriend were hanging out in trendy Wynwood during the annual Art Basel festival. Lopez, a pharmacist and stepdaughter of a retired Florida Highway Patrol master sergeant, told FDLE investigators she was checking the event schedule when she heard a commotion. She turned and saw that her boyfriend was sitting on the ground, handcuffed, as Ortiz stood over him.

Ortiz initially ignored her questions, according to the FDLE report, and when pressed, he shoved her. As she fell, she broke her fall with her left hand, fracturing her wrist. She was arrested on a charge of resisting an officer and initially taken to jail, but her wrist was so swollen that she had to be transferred to a hospital first. The charge was later dropped.

Lopez’s boyfriend was also arrested on a criminal mischief charge for making graffiti. But it turned out Art Basel promoters had placed spray paint cans around the neighborhood for the public to try a hand at graffiti in designated areas, according to her lawyer. The charge against him was dropped, too.

Lopez told FDLE investigators that she chose not to file an Internal Affairs complaint against Ortiz because of her “fear of retaliation,” saying she had researched his background and “found instances in social media and news articles that Ortiz was in the habit of cyber-stalking and/or retaliating against his ‘victims.’ “

A year earlier, Ortiz had led a social media smear campaign as the police union president against a woman who had videotaped a Miami-Dade officer driving 90 mph in a suburban area and her roadside encounter with him, which appeared on multiple media websites. In retaliation, Ortiz “doxxed” the woman, posting her face on social media and urging fellow cops to call her. She received hundreds of threatening calls and messages, prompting Miami Internal Affairs detectives to investigate Ortiz for cyberbullying and violating departmental rules. Ortiz only received a departmental reprimand and was later suspended for a short period of time after a judge issued a restraining order to stay away from the woman, who had filed a stalking complaint.

In the end, Lopez accepted a pretrial diversion program so the charge of resisting an officer would be dropped, the FDLE report says. But she later decided to sue the city and Ortiz. She had to wear a cast on her left wrist for nearly two months, and still suffers from residual pain, she told investigators. The case was settled for $100,000.

David Frankel, a South Florida attorney who represented both Lopez and Sebastian, pointed out that Ortiz’s record of misconduct allegations hasn’t hurt his career. Not only had he avoided severe discipline, at least until the suspension last year, he’s been promoted three times and given plum jobs, such as running off-duty details that provide extra income for officers and only increased his influence on the force.

“From the Internal Affairs’ reports that I have been able to review, there appears to be a consistent pattern of favoritism and protection of Captain Ortiz to the clear detriment of the citizens of Miami,” said Frankel, who worked as an assistant state prosecutor in Broward County for more than 20 years before going into private practice. “The question is why.”

In 2014, the insurer for Ultra Music Festival paid an even larger settlement of $400,000 to a New York man after Miami police working off-duty details allegedly beat him up outside the venue, according to a lawsuit. Jesse Campodonico was confronted by four cops, including Ortiz, when he complained that an Ultra security guard would not let his girlfriend into the festival with a glow stick in 2011.

Campodonico claimed the cops struck him, choked him, and threw him to the ground, where they then shot him with a Taser three times. Campodonico, who accused Ortiz of fabricating a report to cover up the beating, sued the festival, the city of Miami and the police officers. The insurer’s payment resolved the case against all of them. Campodonico was initially charged with battery, but those charges were eventually dropped.

In some cases, Ortiz has benefited from legal protections that shield police officers from personal liability because of their high-risk jobs.

Case in point: College student Francois Alexandre, whose complaint was cited in the FDLE report, accused Ortiz and other police officers of beating him up and breaking his eye socket while he was celebrating the Miami Heat’s second straight NBA championship in front of AmericanAirlines Arena in June 2013.

ENCOUNTER WITH NFL FOOTBALL STAR

In a lawsuit, Ortiz was accused of placing Alexandre in a “headlock around the neck” and pushing him against a wall, according to court records. But Ortiz prevailed when a federal appeals court granted his motion for summary judgment, saying he had “qualified immunity” because he used reasonable force when he took down Alexandre and did not pile up on him or punch him like other officers allegedly did. Cases against the other officers are pending.

“When somebody like Ortiz has a track record like this, how can anyone stand up and say, ‘He works for me,’ ” Alexandre told the Herald. “Javier and the likes of Javier are really overdue.”

In yet another case, the FDLE detailed accusations of an illegal search of a catamaran moored near the Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key in April 2019. The owner, whose boat had been repeatedly cited in the past by marine officers, reported the incident after a surveillance video caught Ortiz and other officers “ransacking” the vessel without a warrant. He complained to internal affairs, the FDLE report says, but nothing came of it.

The report doesn’t cover another Ortiz arrest that made headlines in January 2009, when he pulled over former University of Miami football star and NFL linebacker Jonathan Vilma for speeding as he drove to Miami International Airport to pick up a friend. When Vilma, a Black athlete, asked why he was being stopped, Ortiz became irate, the ballplayer said in a police complaint, accusing him of going “nuts” at a traffic stop. Vilma said he “waved a gun in his face, screamed at him, and arrested him on false charges that were later dropped.”

Vilma, who won a Super Bowl championship with the New Orleans Saints that year, was arrested on charges of resisting an officer with violence and reckless driving. Miami-Dade prosecutors refused to prosecute the case against him, but Vilma’s complaint, filed with the Internal Affairs Division, went nowhere.

Beyond clashes with civilians, the FDLE report notes complaints from fellow officers about “doxing” and other allegations of Ortiz misusing his authority as a top union official to attack rivals or critics.

But the report left out at least one example raised in a lawsuit filed against the city last year. It accuses Ortiz of exercising his influence to support one officer accused of planting drugs on suspects while punishing other cops who didn’t toe his blue line. In the suit, former detective Luis Valdes contends that Ortiz led a retaliatory campaign against him and other undercover detectives who testified against Sgt. Raul Iglesias, who was convicted in federal court in 2013. Valdes was fired two years later for allegedly lying on an arrest form in another drug operation, which he denied. His civil case is pending in state court.

It’s that self-appointed role as defender of all police that has earned Ortiz most of his notoriety over the years. He has used social media platforms, including Facebook and the police blog LEO Affairs, to wade into national cases and issues fraught with racial tension..

After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 — one of the first high-profile police shootings of young unarmed Black men that would generate national Black Lives Matter protests — Ortiz flew to Ferguson and barbecued with police officers there. The next year, he called a 12-year-old Black child, who was playing with a toy gun, a “thug” after he was shot and killed by a Cleveland cop.

One year later, he panicked city leaders when he sent a missive to police departments across the country urging them not to work at Beyoncé’s concerts because of her widely praised “Formation” video, a statement against police brutality that Ortiz claimed paid homage to the Black Panther movement and violence against police. He initially planned a boycott of her performance at Marlins Park, but it backfired when officers refused.

Just before his suspension in January 2020, he sparked a firestorm at City Hall during a back-and-forth with Keon Hardemon, now a Miami-Dade County commissioner, but then the city’s only Black commissioner. Ortiz, who during the discussion referred to Black men as “negroes,” was explaining why he referred to himself as “Black” on his own promotion exam.

When Ortiz brought up the “one-drop rule,” an old racist trope that implies anyone with Black ancestry is Black, Hardemon urged him not to get into a discussion on “degrees of Blackness.” Ortiz’s reply: “Oh no, you’re Blacker than me, that’s obvious.”

BAD PREMONITION

Stanley Jean-Poix, president of Miami’s Black police union, says he came away uneasy from his first encounter with Ortiz nearly 20 years ago when he agreed to ride around Coconut Grove in his patrol car with the then-college intern.

“I remember telling my guys, ‘If this guy becomes a cop, he’s going to be a problem,’ ” recalled Jean-Poix, a police sergeant. “He was talking in police codes, and I remember telling him, ‘You’re not even a cop yet. You’re an intern.’ ”

Jean-Poix says Ortiz’s issues have been in plain sight in the department. In 2015, he got into a social media spat with the city’s highest-ranking female police officer, who also happened to be a Black Muslim. Ortiz claimed Assistant Police Chief Anita Najiy refused to cover her heart with her hand during the Pledge of Allegiance. There are many other examples. Last year, the Miami New Times collected a number of incidents under the headline, “All the Times Miami Cop Javier Ortiz Insulted Black People.”

“He has some deep-rooted personal issues with racism and sexism. I think he should be fired. He’s a bad representation of the police department,” said Jean-Poix, president of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association. “As cops, we’re supposed to be better.”

Though reinstated, Ortiz will soon answer to a new boss. This month, Miami hired Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who has developed a national profile by calling for gun control, marching with Black Lives Matter protesters and criticizing former President Donald Trump. On paper at least, there could be friction.

Acevedo is also known to have a short fuse when it comes to rogue cops. And despite all the employment privileges afforded police, he has a strong record at making firings stick. He said as much during a City Hall press conference earlier this month when he insisted he would not stand for mediocrity.

“And I will not apologize for getting rid of mediocrity because when you allow mediocrity to fester, the community sees it,” he said. “They know it. And it spreads like cancer.”

A SEARING MEMORY

Octavia Johnson, the teacher who filed the first complaint against Ortiz, said she has tried to put an arrest 13 years ago behind her. But when she does think about it, shock and anger still wash over her. Every moment remains raw.

She believes she was profiled, telling FDLE investigators in 2019 that Ortiz approached her car with his gun drawn, demanding proof she was a teacher with money for a nearly new car.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” she said. But it went from bad to worse quickly. Ortiz, she said, put her in an arm lock and pushed her face against the concrete — all while her child was in a safety seat in the back of the car. She complained about the rough treatment, as did her mother, whom she had called to the scene.

“Step the f--- back before I arrest you, too,” Ortiz told the mother, according to the report. When Johnson asked Ortiz if her mother could take her child out of the car, she told FDLE investigators that he said, “No! That motherf---er is going to DCF custody.” That’s the state welfare agency.

Johnson wound up in jail overnight, paid a $750 fee toward her bond and eventually entered a pretrial diversion program so the resisting arrest charge would be dropped and she wouldn’t have a record.

Soon after, Johnson filed a complaint against Ortiz with Miami’s Internal Affairs Division, saying the case against her was fabricated. She said she never heard back from IA detectives. Johnson, who now teaches special needs students at Brownsville Middle School, calls it “astonishing” Ortiz never got as much as a slap on the wrist for the traumatic encounter.

“As you can see, the city of Miami failed me,” she said. “I’ve lost faith in the system.”