Miami Gardens PD accused of cover-ups

$2M lawsuit claims career officer was fired for speaking out

By Kevin Deutsch

On September 12, 2023

A former Miami Gardens police major says she was fired for speaking up about misconduct in the department and wrongdoing by Chief Delma Noel-Pratt, who tried to improperly insulate herself from criticism through a policy of retaliation, according to a lawsuit filed Monday. 

Robin Starks, 57, is seeking more than $2 million in damages in the suit filed in state court against Miami Gardens and its police chief. A 33-year law enforcement veteran, Starks served as major of operations for city police from 2017 until her firing in June 2023, according to the suit. 

The legal complaint alleges Starks refused to participate in multiple instances of impropriety and lawbreaking in the department, including the mishandling of a politically sensitive crash investigation, inappropriately lenient disciplinary measures and misconduct involving police records. 

Starks said she was vocal at departmental meetings and forums about a lack of police training and other deficiencies in the department, honesty that allegedly drew Noel-Pratt’s ire. 

The former major oversaw the Operations Division, which includes patrol. Despite her high rank, she was banned by Noel-Pratt from speaking to public officials and attending public meetings in her capacity as a citizen “as part of a paranoid policy to improperly insulate herself from any legitimate criticism,” the suit states. 

Noel-Pratt, sworn in as the department’s first female chief in 2017, asked Starks to come to her office in 2020 because she “was increasingly concerned about and desired to prohibit Starks from voicing her opinion to anyone that was in any way critical of the Chief,” according to the court filing. 

The chief “made it clear that she would not tolerate [Starks] making any comments critical of her, the department, training and/or go[ing] to any political events on her own time,” in the city where Starks lived. 

Starks served with the Miami Police Department for 26 years until 2015, then spent two years as public safety chief at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus before joining the Miami Gardens force. She declined to be interviewed but issued a statement through her attorney, Michael Pizzi. 

“I have spent over thirty years giving both myself and professional police work a good reputation,” said Starks, whose LinkedIn profile says she now runs her own consulting firm and lists a doctoral degree in education. “I owe it to the citizens and police of Miami Gardens to protect the integrity of the police department and I will fight for that with passion.” 

Noel-Pratt and Sonja Dickens, Miami Gardens city attorney, ignored multiple requests for comment from The Miami Times. No one from the city provided an explanation as to why officials would not respond to the allegations. 

A career ‘destroyed’ 

According to the lawsuit, “Stark’s professional life as a police officer had always followed the path of righteousness, truthfulness, and integrity. However, she saw her law enforcement career and reputation destroyed after she came forward with information about malfeasance” in the police department. 

That information included the mishandling of an April 2023 vehicle accident involving Jada Jefferson, the daughter of “politically connected” city resident Sonia Frazier, owner of Garden of Soul Food. 

Frazier, whose daughter broke her left arm in the accident, alleged a “cover-up” in the case after police failed to issue a citation to the person at fault and redacted Frazier’s copy of the accident report, despite the vehicle being registered in her name, the suit alleges. 

Starks was assigned to investigate. She found the officer and field training officer involved in the case “should be replaced for not following proper procedures.” She also determined “there were improper delays in providing public information to the family that would have revealed improper conduct,” and found bodycam video in the case was “improperly not disclosed,” the court documents state. 

Starks reported the wrongdoing she found verbally as well as in writing to authorized local officials, according to the suit. A short time later, on June 28, 2023, Starks was allegedly called into a meeting and “advised to submit a resignation letter by the end of that day and to lie and agree that she wished to voluntarily leave the department.” 

She rescinded the resignation letter almost immediately because she was being improperly fired, Pizzi said.

Pizzi called Starks “one of the most respected members of the South Florida law enforcement community for decades.” Her termination by Noel-Pratt “for improper purposes is a disservice to the citizens of Miami Gardens who expect and deserve outstanding public safety and professional law enforcement.” 

Starks has evidence and notes substantiating her allegations, Pizzi said. 

Altered documents 

Among other claims, Starks alleged Noel-Pratt had a policy of limiting free speech and retaliating against those who exercised their First Amendment rights. Starks said she refused to participate in improper actions the chief tried to impose on subordinates, including disciplinary measures Starks felt were inappropriate. 

Starks also alleged departmental documents were improperly modified. The suit references allegations of a captain fabricating reports and changing supervisors’ documents, a disciplinary report being changed without authorization and documents modified by a captain in a 2020 use-of-force case involving former officer Jordy Yanes Martel, who was convicted of battery and trespassing in June 2023 for the violent arrest. 

In other cases, Starks said personnel who committed wrongdoing got off lightly or without punishment. In 2020, for example, Capt. James Hughes was relieved of duty with pay when his lover took his personal vehicle, drove it to the police station, retrieved his gun and gave it to a sergeant, the suit alleges. Hughes was able to return to work, according to Starks. 

In a separate case, Cmdr. Joseph Schaefer was found in violation of department policy for helping an officer cheat during an interview process, yet was later placed in a position overseeing Internal Affairs, Starks alleges. 

The suit also alleges Capt. Diana Hedrick was written up for falsifying documents, then transferred to the Operations Division instead of being disciplined. 

“Starks opposed these unethical actions by Chief Noel-Pratt,” the suit states. 

Pushes for training 

During her time with the department, Starks said she repeatedly talked about the importance of training and how the department could be held vicariously liable for not providing adequate supports in that area. 

“At no time was any of this information considered,” the documents allege. 

Noel-Pratt’s displeasure was evident in May 2023 when she demanded a meeting with the department’s command staff, including Starks, the records state. 

“The Chief was very upset and stated that someone (insinuating someone in the room) was undermining her and setting themselves up with certain people,” the suit states. “She then asked several times if anyone in the room could run the police department better than her.” 

A little over a month later, Starks was fired. She alleges her treatment by the city and Noel-Pratt violated her First Amendment rights, whistleblower protections and contract law.

This piece was republished from The Miami Times.

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