3 South Fla. police charged in immigrant beatings

6:36 PM, Jul 5, 2012   |    comments
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MIAMI (AP) - Three South Florida police officers have been charged in a series of immigrant beatings following a year-plus investigation by state and federal authorities, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said Thursday.

Homestead Police Sgt. Jeffrey Rome is accused in an arrest warrant of beating two men outside a bar last year in the Miami suburb that is home to many immigrant farmworkers. Rome also allegedly sprayed others with pepper spray without provocation. He faces charges of battery, false imprisonment, elderly abuse and obstructing a firefighter from a rescue.

Homestead Officer Giovanni Soto was also charged with battery. Soto and Shift Commander Sgt. Lizanne Deegan face misdemeanor charges of misconduct for allegedly trying to cover up one of the incidents. The warrants were signed June 2.

"Police brutality is wrong no matter what form it takes. The covering-up of police brutality is equally wrong. That's why we are prosecuting these cases in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice who played an essential role in helping make these cases possible," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement.

The FBI confirmed it helped with the investigation but declined to comment further Thursday.

Authorities had been staking out Celio's Latin Quarter Bar in Homestead during a human trafficking investigation when they began to track Rome in April, 2011. As a result, several incidents were observed by other officers and captured on police surveillance video.

Rome and Soto's attorney Michael Cornely was out of town and not available for comment, Cornely's office said Thursday.

Deegan's attorney Richard Sharpstein told The Associated Press the victim in the incident involving his client was "intoxicated, babbling, incoherent and unclear." He said Deegan "did all the right things" including getting him medical attention and taking pictures of his injuries.

An arraignment in the case is set for Aug. 1. All three have been on administrative leave.

According to the arrest warrants, in the early hours of April 17, 2011, Rome spoke to a man who had just left Celio's. The man then walked away before returning to talk to Rome. As the man approached him a second time, Rome sprayed the man with what officers described as "the strongest pepper spray and tear gas mix available for non-military use."

Rome continued to spray the man even as he walked away.

When other officers later tried to help the victim, who identified himself as a 24-year-old farmworker from Guatemala, the young man fell to his knees and begged for his life. Even after the officers assured him they were trying to help, he declined their assistance.

Also in April, Rome was captured on video as he grabbed a 69 year-old man by the collar and pulled the man to the ground before dragging him from the roadway to the sidewalk.

"As the man lay motionless on the ground, Sergeant Rome is seen kicking the man in the head," a warrant says.

During this period, investigators received numerous complaints "from individuals claiming to have been beaten or pepper sprayed by police, but often times the complainant was not found or Homestead Police Sergeant Jeffrey Rome would respond and cancel all other units," the warrant stated.

Soto is named in a warrant as one of two officers who responded to a complaint in another incident. He is accused of beating the victim, and he and Deegan are accused of covering up the incident.

Authorities say Deegan accompanied the alleged victim in that incident to the hospital and told him she would make a report, even giving him her card. She never filed the report. Sharpstein said Deegan thought the other officers who responded to the initial call would do so.

The Miami-Dade Police Union has accused Rundle of using the case to help her re-election campaign. She faces a challenger in the Democratic primary next month. The union told The Miami Herald the timing of the arrests - after more than a year - was suspicious.

But Rundle spokesman Ed Griffith said Thursday that multiple factors complicated the investigation. He said it took the U.S. Department of Justice to track down some of the victims in Guatemala.

He also said state investigators met with the lawyers for the accused officers in January and that it took time to respond to issues their defense attorneys raised during that meeting.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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