Courts & Crime

Miami police chief Timoney says he wants to keep job

MIAMI — The day John Timoney was sworn in as Miami police chief in 2003, 11 of his troops stood trial for concocting evidence and planting guns in a spate of shootings. Seven would be convicted.

Within two years, Timoney's administration would clean up the mess, turning a sometimes trigger-happy force into one where no officer fired a weapon for 20 months. Bad cops were punished. Crime dipped.

Now the chief finds himself in a very public political fight, with his Miami career on the line. Tomás Regalado, ushered in as mayor in a landslide Tuesday, wants the chief out and says he'll keep pressing until he is.

Timoney is standing firm.

"I love it here,'' Timoney, 61, said in an interview before Tuesday's election. "I've had a great time. We have lots of work to do, lots of plans.''

It's the first showdown of the new Miami administration, pitting a political naysayer who rose to office on a tide of public discontent against a nationally known police chief not shy to tangle.

Pressed to elaborate on the potential riff, Timoney would say no more. "You underestimate the Irish for stubbornness,'' he said.


Timoney's path to Miami came by way of some of the nation's toughest neighborhoods. At 13, he moved from Ireland to New York City's hard-scrabble Washington Heights, where he changed his name from Sean to John to help him fit in.

He found his vocation after high school, doing clerical work with the New York City Police Department. Two years later, in 1969, he was a beat cop.

Timoney rose through the ranks quickly, becoming the city's youngest four-star chief, and was later named first deputy commissioner under Chief William Bratton.

But in the Big Apple, his dream job never materialized: When Bratton had a falling-out with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Timoney was ignored.

So he headed to Philadelphia, where he was appointed police commissioner in 1997. Corruption plagued the department. Crime was rising. Timoney implemented more training for officers and transformed the internal affairs bureau.

"People here still talk about John,'' said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has known Timoney since his NYPD days.

By 2002, Timoney was gone. When Bratton again beat him out for a job -- this time as Los Angeles' top cop -- Timoney spent a year as a chief executive for a large security firm in New York.

Boredom set in, he said.

"It's the end of November. I'm freezing my ass off,'' the chief recalled.

Then came a call from Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

His reply: "I'll be down next week.''


He weighed the move as Miami searched for answers after a string of tourist robberies and murders that drew international attention.

Scandal did, too. When members of a "rogue'' elite police squad known as the "Jump Out Boys'' were accused by the feds of questionable shootings and coverups, then-City Manager Carlos Gimenez looked for an outsider.

"We needed a fresh perspective,'' said Gimenez.

In Timoney, Diaz said he found an acclaimed chief who on one hand could come across as a gruff Irish cop -- but on the other lectured at Amherst and other New England colleges on Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment.

``When you work with him, you find he's really . . . a civil libertarian. He's a `step back and let's figure out how to stop this from escalating' type of guy,'' Diaz said.

When Timoney became chief on a Monday in 2003, representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice were called in to observe the police department after the spate of troubles.

Timoney instituted policy changes. Police now get training on dealing with the mentally ill. Tasers in some cases have replaced guns. Dog bites and shootings are down. Officers aren't allowed to fire at moving vehicles except in extreme cases.

He found controversy, too.

World leaders watched in 2003 as Timoney led more than 40 police departments in protecting diplomats from swarming protesters during the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference. Clashes were common.

The results weren't pretty, and Timoney again made the nightly news. First, for facing off against a small group of self-described anarchists on a video. He later arrested them. The cameras rolled again as Timoney rode his bike between a throng of riot-geared officers and sign-carrying protesters. The chief even made an arrest.

Critics say the police were too abusive. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and the city has since settled six lawsuits for more than $500,000.

The chief took other lumps over his free use of a Lexus from a South Florida car dealer. Timoney denied the accusation at first, then paid for the vehicle, and eventually paid $1,000 in fines to the state and county. The city manager docked his pay for a week.


Now, his job fight has ties to City Hall and the police union.

In an election with sparse turnout, Regalado swept into office with the support of the powerful union. The chief's ouster has been a mission for Fraternal Order of Police President Armando Aguilar, an old guard city cop who says his troops have been unfairly disciplined and denied promotions.

``There's been nothing but turmoil since he started at this police department,'' said Aguilar. ``It's been hell on our troops. He's basically destroyed morale.''

The internal squabble became very public over a few weeks in 2007.

First, the union leaked information to a television reporter about the free Lexus.

Then, Aguilar called a press conference to contend that city crime statistics were being fudged. The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement were asked to take a look -- but later found no evidence of statistic suppression.

Then, Aguilar called for a union vote of confidence for the chief and Deputy Chief Frank Fernandez, his right-hand man.

More than 80 percent of members cast no-confidence votes for both, Aguilar said.

Armed with the vote, Aguilar headed to Timoney's office. ``I bluntly told him, `You've got to leave,' '' said Aguilar.

The two haven't spoken since, said Aguilar.

With a new mayor -- Regalado will be sworn in next Wednesday -- the heat has moved to City Hall. The mayor can't fire the chief -- but he can fire the city manager, who controls personnel. City commissioners would have to sign off on the chief's ouster.

``My move is to keep saying to the manager, `I'm very uncomfortable with the chief,' '' Regalado said. ``I will say that every day. People get messages.''

Some outside the department see nothing unusual in the union being at odds with a strong-willed chief.

Said outgoing Mayor Diaz: ``Do you want a nice guy, someone who will take you out for lunch, or do you want someone who's the best? I'm extremely pleased, honestly.''

Timoney shrugs off the pressure.

``I've had a great time. I love living in South Florida,'' said the avid bicyclist and rower. ``It's more relaxing than in New York.''