Emergency lines were ringing off the hook from North Bay Village on Sept. 9, 2017, as the tiny, three-island city braced itself for what was predicted to be an almost direct hit from Hurricane Irma.
As the night wore on, power lines fell, streets flooded, and alarms sounded. And yet by midnight, half the members of the 12-person hurricane "Landfall Team" — the only local emergency unit still on the ground — were sitting around a table at City Hall drinking Corona Light, according to an internal affairs report obtained by the Miami Herald. The documents describe the night this way:
Instead of patrolling in their special high-water vehicles or taking calls, the commander told the other police officers that they should stay in and could drink on the job. So seven guys cracked open beers, talked football and did what one official described as “other things guys do when they get together.”
The “hurricane party” started at 11:23 pm when Lt. James McCready, the shift commander that night, set a white cooler full of ice-cold beer on the conference room table in front of Tim Smith, the town's public works supervisor. McCready then placed a red cup in front of the surveillance camera, blocking what happened next. Soon, other officers joined McCready and Smith, pulling beers from the cooler's bed of ice, according to the internal investigation.
The department was receiving a high volume of calls that day reporting medical emergencies, fire and burglar alarms going off, and other urgent matters, according to a police report.
Officer Walter Sajdak walked in on the party after refueling the emergency vehicles just after midnight. He saw a table littered with bottles and officers with open beers in front of them. “Have a beer,” McCready greeted him, according to Sajdak's testimony. He said he declined. Drinking on duty is against the officer code of conduct.
After the hurricane, Sajdak reported the party to a superior officer.
“I was upset about lives being put at risk, lives being put in danger," Sajdak said in an interview with an internal affairs investigator. He said that McCready was making operational decisions for the team while drinking that night. “Lieutenant McCready, who was in charge of our Landfall Team, had jeopardized the lives of the officers that were working and the residents by drinking alcohol.”
Before he went to bed around 1:15 am, Sajdak said McCready instructed the officers to clean up the bottles and get rid of the evidence. One officer destroyed bottle caps with his Leatherman.
On June 26, the Miami Herald requested a copy of the video footage that shows McCready enter with the cooler and attempt to cover the camera. But the city has not yet provided a copy of the video to the Herald, even though some of the footage — the officers' faces electronically blurred so they are not identifiable — already aired on NBC 6 News on June 27.
According to the Landfall Team's report, between 11:45 p.m. Sept. 9 and 7 a.m. the next day, “official police operations ceased due to conditions being unsafe and officer fatigue.” But the report indicates that at the time, there was no official order from anyone other than McCready to cease operations. Orders from higher-ups to stand down due to conditions didn’t come until the next morning when the storm made landfall.
Six members of the Landfall Team — McCready, Sgt. James McVay, Detective Manuel Casais, and officers Ismael Chevalier, Norlan Benitez, and Ethan Cherasia — admitted to violating the policy regarding drinking on the job. But investigators found no evidence that any of the officers were extremely impaired. The report concluded that the drinking never impeded emergency response efforts.
However, Sajdak’s testimony implies a slightly different story.
“[McVay] and I went out and handled the calls for service because the others, I guess, were in here drinking,” testified Sajdak. Sajdak said he and McVay responded to a municipal dispatch for an address on West Drive with an alarm sounding. Sajdak said that McVay told him at the time that he had taken only a sip of beer before becoming uncomfortable with the situation. McCready was initially put on administrative leave. According to a March 9 memorandum, McCready “took responsibility for making an error In judgment with the Team.” He was later removed from the Landfall Team for at least 12 months.
All six officers who participated in the party received letters of reprimand and forfeited accrued time. Carlos Noriega, then the police chief, recommended that officers' salaries for those forfeited hours be paid back to FEMA.
When presented with his letter of reprimand, McCready insisted that part of Sajdak’s testimony was untrue. Another internal affairs investigation was launched, though details have not been released.
In December 2017, Sajdak reported he felt like he was “being targeted” and followed around at work for ratting out the team. However, he was unable to substantiate his claims, so no further action was taken.
Frank Rollason signed off on the letters of reprimand on his last day as North Bay Village city manager in January 2018. He said Smith, the public works supervisor, who was a witness in the police investigation, could not be issued a letter of reprimand until that investigation concluded.
"We never got to his discipline," Rollason said, adding that he and other administrators were pushed out of government by the mayor before they could conclude the process. Smith "would have gotten a letter of reprimand and lost eight hours of pay, but nothing happened.”