SWEETWATER (CBSMiami) — The City of Sweetwater, already battered by allegations its former mayor is corrupt, is now facing a lawsuit alleging its police department uses excessive force.
This lawsuit follows a 2011 CBS4 News investigation that uncovered a video showing what appeared to be two police officers abusing a prisoner.
The video, obtained by CBS4 News investigator Jim DeFede, shows a Sweetwater reserve officer grabbing a handcuffed suspect by the neck and throwing him to the floor of the station house.
The suspect, Alberto Dominguez, landed on a metal chair and then fell face-first on the floor, resulting in a large cut over his right eye. The department’s surveillance cameras capture the prisoner, Alberto Dominguez bleeding profusely as the officer, Paul Abreu, continues to grab him by the head and neck, twisting and turning him, until he gets Dominguez on his belly.
A second officer enters the picture and grabs Dominguez by the shirt, dragging him into a nearby cell, leaving him face down and bleeding – his hands still cuffed behind his back.
Dominguez would remain in that cell for two hours before finally being taken to the county jail where he received approximately a dozen stitches.
In April, Dominguez, filed suit against Sweetwater and Abreu. (The other officer in the case has since died.) Dominguez accuses the city of tolerating a culture of excessive force within the police department.
Sweetwater “has permitted, tolerated, and condoned a culture within the ranks of the City of Sweetwater Police Department, the use of excessive force in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit specifically cites the questionable leadership of former mayor Manny Marono as being a key factor in allowing this culture to thrive. Ironically, the lawsuit was filed before Marono’s recent arrest on federal public corruption charges.
The Dominguez lawsuit against Sweetwater and Abreu was filed by attorney Alan Greensetin from the South Miami law offices of Chavez and DeLeon.
Sweetwater has denied any wrongdoing. But as CBS4 News reported in 2011, there were others who felt Abreu’s actions constituted excessive force.
“The force that I saw on the video was clearly excessive,” said Ken Harms, a former Miami Police chief who reviewed the video for CBS4 News back in April 2011.
At the time, Sweetwater Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira defended Abreu, saying while his “technique” in subduing the suspect was not ideal, it was not illegal. He said he sent a copy of the video to the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office which concluded there was no “criminal intent” on the part of Abreu.
But other questions are raised by the officer’s sworn arrest affidavit from the April 17, 2010 incident. The report documents that Dominguez was initially arrested for criminal mischief for allegedly puncturing the tires of a car parked near his trailer. The report then notes Abreu was transported to the Sweetwater Police Department.
Abreu claimed that once they arrived at the station, he ordered Dominguez “4 to 6” times to place his hands on the counter inside the police department. He said Dominguez refused to comply with his demands. Abreu also swore that “suspect launch forward toward officer” and that as a result the suspect was “taken down to floor.” Abreu added the charge of resisting arrest with violence against Dominguez.
A review of the video, however, shows that Dominguez, 38, could not possibly comply with Abreu’s command to place his hands on the counter because his hands were cuffed behind his back. Also nowhere on the video is Dominguez seen launching himself toward the officer. On the contrary, Dominguez was standing still when Abreu grabbed him and threw him to the ground.
Neither the State Attorney nor the Sweetwater Police Department addressed the issue of whether Abreu may have filed a false report under oath or whether he intentionally charged Dominguez with a crime he did not commit.
Harms said he was mystified that neither the State Attorney nor the Sweetwater police department’s internal affairs unit even bothered to interview Dominguez.
Harms argues the assistant state attorney “essentially repeats what the officer’s report says, without questioning any of it, without taking any statements from the officer, without taking any statements from the individual who was arrested. And that’s troubling because that suggests to me that the State Attorney’s Office failed to handle their responsibilities in a professional manner.
“Are they simply looking to rubber stamp this kind of behavior on the part of police officers and police departments?” Harms continued. “And I would suggest to you that happens more frequently than we would like to consider and not like to admit.”
In an email sent to CBS4 News, Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman wrote: “I remember watching the video, multiple times. I slowed it down and watched it almost frame-by-frame. I have no recollection of reading reports that were false. However, if there is something else I should look at, I’m happy to do so. All I need is a copy of the reports and whatever evidence there is that shows them to be false.”
Hardiman notes that Dominguez never filed a complaint with Sweetwater’s Internal Affairs unit. She also said he refused treatment from paramedics that night, which could make it difficult to document the extent of his injuries.
CBS4 News found Dominguez and his wife, Isel, living near Coral Gables. He said he never bothered filing a complaint against the officer because he didn’t believe anyone would believe him.
“I had no proof,” he said in Spanish.
He didn’t realize there was a surveillance camera system inside the police station. Both he and his wife were shocked when CBS4 News showed them the video.
“Oh my God, Alberto,” Isel gasped as she watched him being thrown to the ground and then dragged, bleeding into a cell.
Isel claims a few days after her husband’s arrest, the police officer, Abreu, called her on the phone and began flirting with her and asking her to go out with him.
“Oh my God why is this guy calling me, why is he texting me,” she remembered asking herself at the time. “I don’t know what to do. He called me like fifteen or twenty times. Every day, every day.”
Looking back on it now, she believes he was calling her to keep tabs on her and see if they were going to file a complaint for the incident at the police department. She finally told him to stop bothering her.
Dominguez ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief. He paid to replace the tires he destroyed.
Fulgueira defended his department saying he took it upon himself to open a review of Abreu’s actions and that he sent the video to the state attorney right away because he didn’t want to be accused of covering anything up.
He said he knows Sweetwater has a reputation for abusing prisoners. In 2003, a man was nearly beaten to death by four Sweetwater police officers.
“We’ve cleaned this house up,” he said. “We’ve gotten rid of a lot of officers here, a lot of officers.”
After the incident, Abreu was ordered to take a refresher CPR course as well as attend a class on handcuffing techniques and the proper use of force.
Click the video below to watch Jim DeFede’s original report filed in May, 2011.