Feds say she’s a rogue cop, but her friends aren’t buying it
MIAMI (AP) — In her portrayal by federal agents, Miami Police Officer Schonton Harris sounds like a character right out of the Denzel Washington cop thriller “Training Day” — a foul-mouthed badass who would do anything, even kill, to keep the drug dealers she protected happy.
Yet to many who know her, Harris was just a normal street cop — and one who displayed a soft spot for people in need. She trained in crisis intervention to deal with the mentally ill and was a former member of the Miami Police Department’s Honor Guard, a sought-after post that honors fallen officers.
At a Winn-Dixie in Model City where she occasionally worked security as an off-duty cop, she would help the elderly with groceries to their cars. Monica Walker, who manages nearby Simon’s Sportswear, said Harris had shopped in the strip mall for at least a decade, often with her daughter in tow. Walker can’t believe the rogue cop allegations and suspects Harris was set up.
“They made her sound like a monster in the news,” Walker said. “She didn’t kill anybody. I don’t believe she was the ringleader, either.”
Harris and two other Miami cops were arrested by the FBI on a host of public corruption charges. Police and federal agents say Harris, 52, a 19-year vet who patrolled Model City, recruited her fellow officers into the drug-dealing protection racket and went beyond acting as just a lookout during cocaine and opioid transactions.
Harris, fellow Model City Neighborhood Resource Officer James Archibald and Officer Kelvin Harris, who worked the front desk at the North District Station, were all charged with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and willfully trafficking narcotics with a firearm.
The FBI claims in its arrest warrant that Harris was recorded threatening a man who got in her way with a gun and telling a federal informant she believed to be a drug dealer that she’d have no problem knocking off a fellow cop if it turned out he couldn’t be trusted. The complaint cites a recorded conversation in September where Harris told the informant that if Archibald proved a problem, he would “disappear.”
And, the FBI claims, Harris even sold a Miami police uniform and a badge to an undercover detective for $1,500, knowing that the gear was intended for a “sicario” — a drug cartel hitman.
At the trio’s first court appearance shortly after their arrests, Schonton Harris was ordered held without bond. Bond for Kelvin Harris and Archibald, the two men she is accused of recruiting, was set at $200,000 each.
The eight-page criminal complaint filed on Oct. 11 in U.S. District Court in Miami says that three times between May and June, Schonton Harris accepted payments to protect couriers moving cash from the illegal sale of drugs. Over the length of the six-month sting, the three accepted payments of $33,500.
The arrests, announced by Miami police and federal agents on a police department auditorium stage used primarily for officer graduation ceremonies, left many who have known Harris for almost two decades flummoxed.
“Everybody loves her,” said one Miami cop, who did not want to be identified. “That’s what’s crazy about it. That’s just is not her. Never.”
Harris has patrolled some of Miami’s toughest beats including Overtown, Liberty Square and most recently Model City, since graduating the police academy and joining the force in 1999. Police department records show she’s only been late to roll call twice in her career.
She did receive a couple of reprimands. In 2003, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge notified Miami Internal Affairs that during a recess in a felony trial Harris conversed with two jurors and exchanged phone numbers with one of them. She asked the defense attorney for his number. An investigation found her conduct “unbecoming” and Harris received a letter of reprimand and was docked 20 hours of pay.
She was also ordered to undergo counseling in 2007 after she got into a spat with a fellow officer who was ticketing parked cars under the orders of her supervisor. When the supervisor approached Harris and said she had undermined her authority, Harris told her boss that she wasn’t talking to her, and “I can say whatever I want.”
Records also show she’s been investigated for use of force 24 times over her nearly two decades on the force. Any use of force, including struggling with someone being arrested, automatically triggers an internal affairs investigation. In each instance, she was either cleared or the claim was found inconclusive.
Twice, she’s fired her weapon. Both times at dogs.
In the first instance in 2008, Harris showed up at a home where two pit bulls had escaped into a neighbor’s backyard. She arrived after a yard worker was bitten. When someone from Miami-Dade Animal Control tried to corral the animals and they began to break through fencing to get away, Harris fired her weapon and killed one of the dogs. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, her internal affairs file shows.
The second incident happened a year later on New Year’s Day, 2009. According to her file, Harris approached a man playing fetch with his pit bull near a baseball diamond in the park. Several times, she told investigators, she asked the man to leash the dog. When the dog approached her and Harris was told the dog only wanted to sniff her, she fired a round that missed. The man was fined $500 and told he had five days to “dispose” of the dog, Harris’ internal affairs report says. She was also cleared in that incident.
Some people who know Harris personally or had interacted with her as a patrol officer struggle to process the accusations against her.
Caroln Bethune, a manager at the Winn-Dixie, said Harris would fill in occasionally for other off-duty officers and she was always friendly.
“It was shocking to me, to tell you the truth,” Bethune said. “I gave her a hug and kiss whenever she’d come in. I don’t know what happened? My heart dropped when I heard the news.”
Catherine Francis, a retired New York Police Department cop who lives in Orlando, knew of Harris through family tragedy. Francis’ brother committed suicide in her mom’s Miami home four years ago and Harris responded to the call, delicately caring for Francis’ elderly mother as police waited on family members to remove her son’s body. Harris’ personnel file cited the case as an example of her training in crisis intervention and Francis praised the officer’s sensitivity and patience.
“She went above and beyond to help my mother,” Francis said. “She was kind and gentle. I was overwhelmed. But I knew it was okay because she (Harris) was with her.”
Harris’ lawyer Andrew Rier said her legal team had only recently started going through the recordings but argued that the FBI’s rogue claims clashed with the image of Harris in her own community.
“There is a clear dichotomy between Schonton and everything I know about her and Schonton on the videos,” Rier said.
Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com