MIAMI – Miami Police Chief Manuel Morales testified on Tuesday in front of the city’s Civil Service Board at City Hall about allegations that he targeted department staff who reported internal affairs corruption and department racism.
Former Commander Brandon Lanier, a military veteran who served two tours in Iraq and has 21 years of experience in law enforcement, and Officer Wanda Jean Baptiste both claimed the department’s leadership didn’t allow them to do their work independently.
The city’s Civil Service Board’s whistleblower hearings this month on behalf of Lanier and Jean Baptiste are a stop on the way to asking the court for legal whistleblower status. Lanier said he and Jean Baptist “blew the whistle” four times.
“Morales has used his position to open investigations to target employees and influence the outcome of investigations,” Lanier wrote in a letter last year to a long list of recipients that included Gov. Ron DeSantis and City Manager Art Noriega.
The members of the board — Troy Sutton, the chairperson; Rodrigo Jimenez, the chief examiner; and board members Rafael Cabrera, Ulysses Garcia, and Travis Lindsey — asked Morales, Lanier, and other witnesses questions.
“Do we have bad cops in the department? Absolutely, every department has them,” Morales told the board. “That’s why internal affairs is here. That’s why we sit down and we have a comprehensive disciplinary process review that holds officers accountable.”
Cabrera, an entrepreneur, questioned whether or not Lanier was truly a whistleblower and if there was really public corruption in the department. Cabrera and Sutton, a Miami firefighter, both criticized Lanier for not reporting the alleged corruption before he did.
“The burden of proof is on you and your attorney,” Sutton told Lanier.
Lanier told the board members that he was in complete command of internal affairs for about four months when he noticed cases were being “covered up,” and officers were “padding the records.” He said that based on his “intel gathering” one of the cases included a police officer who was accused of coercion and official misconduct, which the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates.
Lanier said he reported the corruption to former Chief Art Acevedo who told him that he had a plan to deal with it — just two weeks before he was terminated.
“When I was appointed to Commander it was not done so by Chief Morales, it was done so by Acevedo,” Lanier said. “Acevedo asked me for my resume. I provided him my resume. My resume is very lengthy as far as all of the accomplishments I have had in this department.”
Lanier said that while serving with the department for about 15 years he had earned the “Employee of the Year” recognition twice, was “Officer of the Year” twice, “Officer of the Month” 15 times, and he has over 60 commendations on his record. He said he has earned two proclamations from two different Miami mayors.
Lanier said he reassigned internal affairs cases under Acevedo and when the department’s leadership changed, he decided to also alert Morales about his concerns.
“I told chief Morales every single thing that I told Acevedo,” Lanier said adding Morales ignored him.
Lanier said Morales then asked him to do “unethical things” to 18-year veteran Capt. Javier Ortiz and he refused. Ortiz was fired in September. Lanier said Morales started to target him, as he had Ortiz, so amid the inaction, he later decided to publicly blow the whistle.
Lanier said he was born and raised in Overtown, so while serving as Overtown Commander under Morales he was devoted to community policing. He said Morales knew that and he had handed awards to his support staff, which he saw as a sign that his leadership was successful.
“We were doing a good job,” Lanier said.
Lanier said he wrote the e-mail reporting the public corruption again on May 26, 2022.
“He started targeting me and he started violating my rights,” Lanier said about Morales.
Morales said he had to have a “Come to Jesus” meeting because the team was “falling apart” under Lanier’s command. Lanier said he started to “shy away” and “isolate” himself after that meeting because he didn’t know who had “ill will” for him.
“It really started changing after that staff meeting,” Lanier said.
Morales said Lanier failed to take part in a “staff retreat,” and he had lost “faith” in his ability to do his job as Overtown Commander.
“Performance alone is not an indication of leadership,” Morales said.
Lanier said he received a disciplinary action report on July 6, 2022, was demoted from Commander to Lieutenant on Oct. 21, 2022, and received a 240-hour suspension this week.
Lanier said a memo Morales wrote to explain his decision to demote him was full of “untruthful statements” and described the demotion and the suspension as “double discipline.”
“I don’t think I should have been disciplined at all,” Lanier said adding he filed a rebuttal to Morales’s memo.
Attorney Griska Mena, who was representing Lanier during the hearing, told the board that Lanier’s case has the elements of a whistleblower case.
“Untruthful statements demean, hurt his reputation, his career,” Mena said.
Stephanie Panoff, an attorney representing the police department, was allowed to cross-examine the witnesses and she presented Morales with a conclusion question during his testimony.
Panoff: “Did you ever retaliate against Lanier because of the letters?”
Morales: “Absolutely not.”
Morales has accused Acevedo of using internal affairs to conduct a “biased investigation” to fire former Deputy Chief Ronald Papier and his wife Commander Nerly Papier. She was accused of failing to report an April 2, 2021 traffic incident, and her husband of covering it up.
Without a vote, the board later adjourned the whistleblower hearing shortly before 9 p.m. The hearing, which had started at 10 a.m., was a continuation of a Jan. 24 hearing. The next hearing is at 10 a.m., on Feb. 7.
The hearing comes nearly a week after 33-year veteran Sgt. Madelin Garcia ripped her superiors during her retirement radio message. Acevedo and Morales were also the subjects of Garcia’s radio message.
“I thought that Acevedo was bad, but at least one thing is for sure, I knew where he was coming from. To The First, you have a nasty attitude, so do yourself a favor, and take some interpersonal skill classes so you know how to treat people right,” Garcia said during her radio transmission.
Related story: Miami police chief calls veteran sergeant ‘disgruntled’ after harsh retirement message
Watch Morales’s testimony
Watch Lanier’s testimony
Watch the 6 p.m. report
Watch the 12 p.m. report