3 Miami police officers fired over target practice 'jokes'

Officers accused of joking about shootings in Overtown/Model City areas

By Associated Press, Amanda Batchelor - Senior Digital Editor, Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI - An internal Miami police investigation has found that three rookie officers joked in a group chat about using the city's primarily black neighborhoods for target practice, the Miami Herald first reported.

According to investigation documents, the officers told an investigator that they were only joking.

The Herald reports that officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin were fired two days before Christmas.

While Alcin is African-American and Valdes has a black grandfather, the remarks upset colleagues and came as the department is under supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice in the wake of a series of police shootings.

Stephen Lopez, an attorney for the officers, said the remarks were taken out of context and that there was no misconduct.

"It was in bad taste and it was an off-color remark," he said. 

Lopez said the messages were sent on June 30 while the officers were off-duty on their personal phones. He said they apologized afterward.

Miami Fraternal Order of Police president Javier Ortiz  spoke on social media about the firings, saying that city manager Danny Alfonso fired the officers "to offset his disparate treatment of discipline on African-American city of Miami employees."

"The FOP doesn't agree with the joking texts made about Northwest First Avenue and 11th Street," Ortiz posted on Facebook. "However, maybe the manager should be focusing on why that specific area is spoken about so often."

According to the documents, one officer asked in the group text, "Anyone know of an indoor shooting range in Miami?" Another officer replied, "Go to Model City. They have moving targets," and another wrote, "There's a range in Overtown on 1 and 11. Moving targets and they don't charge."

Ortiz maintains that the district is "out of control" when it comes to shootings in Miami.

"But the manager (would) rather focus on text messages than the senseless killings and violent crime in the Overtown/Model City areas," Ortiz said.

Community activist Robert Malone also feels that the officers could have been reprimanded instead of fired.

"I'm hoping someone in our community does not use this and kind of explode it and make it appear to be something that it's not," he said.

Lopez told the Herald that he believes his clients will be able to keep their jobs based on the grounds that the city is discriminating against them.

He told the newspaper that it is "outrageous and ludicrous" to claim that the officers are racist because two of them have "black blood pumping through their veins."

"The City of Miami is looking to hire and retain the best police officers to serve our diverse community," Alfonso said in a statement. "Comments like those made by the three probationary officers, suggesting the use of human beings for target practice, do not reflect the community policing principles we advocate. This decision was made in consultation with Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes."

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.