By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
A Miami Beach cop’s year-long effort to get county ethics officials to investigate credible allegations of cheating and other irregularities with the city’s exam process for promoting police officers has been snubbed.
Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, informed Robert Mitchell, a six-year Miami Beach police veteran, on Oct. 16 that the watchdog agency didn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate them.
“Please be advised that the allegations that you have referred are not currently under review by the Ethics Commission,” Arrojo wrote.
But by ignoring serious accusations of corruption in the way city police officers are considered for promotion, Arrojo’s position appears to be at odds with the ethics commission’s mission: “to ensure the integrity of both the governmental decision-making process and the electoral process, to restore public confidence in government and to serve as the guardian of the public trust.”
Mitchell told Florida Bulldog the Oct. 16 email was the first time he heard back from Arrojo since Feb. 19, when he emailed the executive director a detailed account of his concerns about the Miami Beach police civil service exam process, including an allegation about a captain on the force who rose up the ranks after cheating on his sergeant’s exam in 2013. He initially contacted Arrojo in October of last year and followed up five months later, and that’s when the ethics commission chief asked him to put his allegations in writing, Mitchell said.
Cheating brushed off
“I put a lot of time into it,” Mitchell said. “You can imagine how frustrating it is especially when Mr. Arrojo asked me to summarize what I had told him. After I put it in writing, I never heard from him again.”
Indeed, Arrojo reached out to Mitchell on Oct. 16 only after the Florida Bulldog contacted the executive director about the status of the officer’s complaint. In an email response, Arrojo claimed he did previously notify Mitchell that the ethics commission was not going to investigate his allegations.
“My recollection is that Mr. Mitchell was advised that there was nothing in his informal referral, as presented, that was reviewable by the Ethics Commission, Arrojo wrote. “He appears to be genuinely convinced that there was some irregularity in the referenced promotional exam.”
Still, Arrojo offered Mitchell no suggestions as to who might be able to investigate.
Mitchell, 64, whose previous cop gig was a 27-year stint in the North Miami Police Department where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, began digging into Miami Beach’s civil service testing process after he didn’t make the cut for new sergeants during the city’s 2018 promotional cycle.
“I was annoyed because I was so far down the list,” Mitchell told Florida Bulldog. “I take pride in doing well. I’ve placed in the top three in previous civil service exams I’ve taken in my career and I have a master’s degree from Barry University in public administration. Some officers without the same experience [who also took the test] surpassed me. That led me to suspect [the test] was not graded fairly.”
Police exam details
The exam consisted of three parts: a written exam, a series of scenario-based exercises and a review process, which affords test takers the opportunity to challenge their scores in the first two parts. Mitchell failed the written portion that took place on Oct. 16, 2018. According to the instructions, test takers would be allowed to submit their challenges to the Miami Beach Human Resources Department by Jan. 28, 2019.
However, the challenge process never took place and his attempts to have his union, the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police, intervene on his behalf were ignored, Mitchell said. “Many of us prepared our briefs for weeks as to why we should be graded differently,” he said. “Management arbitrarily and unilaterally disregarded the process and no one is calling them out on it. People are given carte blanche to do whatever they want.”
Kevin Millan, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police, said the police union filed grievances surrounding the 2018 testing process after receiving several complaints from officers, although he would not say if one of them is Mitchell. Millan also declined comment about Mitchell’s allegations because the grievances have not been resolved by the city. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any pending grievances,” Millan said.
In a Feb. 19 email to Arrojo, Mitchell explained that he inadvertently stumbled upon a situation involving cheating in the city’s 2013 promotional exam process. “A Miami Beach Labor Specialist…was fired for having the answers of the promotional test on her cell phone, according to numerous sources including a lieutenant, an internal affairs sergeant and a patrol sergeant,” Mitchell wrote. “Apparently there wasn’t an internal affairs investigation conducted on whether or not [the labor specialist] provided the answers to her then boyfriend (now husband), or any other candidate.”
The boyfriend “aced the written test, but failed the assessment part,” Mitchell’s email states. The test taker filed a grievance and lost, yet he was still promoted to sergeant and the alleged cheater is now a captain, Mitchell alleged.
Florida Bulldog interviewed five other former and current Miami Beach police officers who corroborated Mitchell’s account but they did not want to be identified because they feared retaliation. “The promotional process has been controversial for many, many years,” said a retired detective who requested anonymity. “It is not a fail-proof system where applicants get a fair shake. It is manipulated.”
Cheating and more
In addition to the alleged incident of cheating, Miami Beach’s testing process warranted an investigation because police department bosses and union representatives participated in the grading of the 2018 promotional exams, which was a recipe for bias and undue influence over which officers got their stripes, Mitchell’s ethics commission email states. Mitchell explained that grading of civil service exams is typically conducted by unbiased third-party assessors.
“It’s questionable and possibly unethical that the Union and City employees are invited to act as ‘assessors’ regarding the review of the exam questions/answers and the assessment performance of the applicants,” Mitchell told Florida Bulldog. “In order to act as assessors, specialized training and certification is required.”
Miami Beach police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez told Florida Bulldog that the police department would not be able to comment about Mitchell’s allegations by deadline.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said he could not comment about Mitchell’s allegations because he was not familiar with them. However, Gelber said he typically forwards any complaints involving city departments to the city manager’s office to follow up on. “I am unaware of these allegations to the best of my knowledge,” he said. “But if someone wants to bring it to my attention, I am happy to look into it.”
Arrojo said Mitchell was afforded an opportunity to relay his allegations verbally and in writing as a courtesy, but that the Ethics Commission does not have review or enforcement jurisdiction regarding the application of Miami Beach personnel rules or the collective bargaining agreement between the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the city.
“The Ethics Commission usually declines to involve itself in personnel and promotional matters that…don’t clearly come under our review or enforcement jurisdiction,” Arrojo said. “The allegations were also discussed and forwarded to parties that might have the ability to provide some relief: to the Miami Beach Inspector General and Counsel for the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police.”
However, Mitchell noted that one reason he went to Arrojo was due to Miami Beach FOP executive officers ignoring his requests for an inquiry into the 2018 exams.
The ethics commission, city officials and the union are allowing cheating to run rampant in the police department’s promotional process by not investigating his claims, Mitchell argued. “When civil service exam rules are either disregarded or manipulated in unethical ways, the applicants’ lives are affected forever,” Mitchell said. “Their dreams of advancement are stolen and with it, years of financial steps in pay and other promotional benefits that rightfully belonged to them.”