HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The Homestead police chief spoke Tuesday about the disgrace involving his department after an officer was accused of profiling and beating illegal immigrants and two others were accused of trying to cover it up.
Homestead police officers on an unrelated case were videotaping outside Celio's Cuartel Latino Bar in April 2011 when they caught on tape what police said was one of their own beating a 69-year-old man for no reason they could see.
"It wasn't a witch hunt. We were not out here hunting. We were not looking for anything. We were typically doing another investigation along with some federal agencies, and this fell into our lap," said Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle.
Their surveillance videos apparently recorded two of three occasions during which Sgt. Jeffrey Rome, 56, is accused of beating and pepper-spraying men he may have thought were illegal immigrants in Homestead's migrant community. Rome worked often at the bar when he was off duty.
Based on the video, witness and victim accounts and dispatch records, internal affairs detectives charged Officer Giovanni Soto, 40, indicating he participated, as well, and Sgt. Lizanne Deegan, who is accused of covering it up.
"This community has a lot of different nationalities here in Homestead. I don't know whether or not they were profiling. I can't say for sure," Rolle said.
The police union representing the officers had been in touch with prosecutors since January and raised objections to the allegations and now questions the time of the arrests after a year and a half.
"The tape is very grainy, and you don't really see much on the tape. That was another problem I had with the case," said John Rivera, of the Police Benevolent Association. "No new evidence surfaced any time in recent history."
The FBI got involved because of the alleged victims' immigration status. It took some travel to round them up.
"They're afraid. And that's why we're here. We want them not to be afraid of the situation, because even though they're undocumented, they do have rights," said Marta Torres, of the Title One Migrant Program.
Authorities said there were three alleged victims in the cases related to the arrests.
All three officers have been suspended with pay, according to Homestead police.
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