Small-town feud catches po­lice dog in the mid­dle

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SARAH BLASKEY AND CHARLES RABIN [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com cra­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

When the Vil­lage of El Por­tal fired po­lice dog Arc­tic, res­i­dents said he was col­lat­eral dam­age in a dis­pute be­tween the man­ager, Mayor Clau­dia Cu­bil­los, and former po­lice chief Ron­nie Huf­nagel. Home­land Se­cu­rity was even called in.

In late Novem­ber, a beloved mem­ber of the El Por­tal po­lice depart­ment was re­moved from duty with­out of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion, causing an up­roar among the vil­lage’s 2,400 res­i­dents who knew the po­lice rookie only as “Arc­tic.”

A 3-year-old Siberian husky, with a face that melts hearts and a bark that sounds like a hu­man talk­ing, Arc­tic has been fa­mous since he was of­fi­cially sworn in to the po­lice depart­ment on July 25, 2017. The tiny town of an­i­mal lovers im­me­di­ately adored him, and his Face­book page quickly gained more than 1,000 fol­low­ers who wanted up­dates on his daily ac­tiv­i­ties.

Now, res­i­dents say Arc­tic is col­lat­eral dam­age in a vi­cious po­lit­i­cal feud be­tween a heavy-

handed mayor/man­ager duo and Arc­tic’s han­dler, the former po­lice chief. It’s a saga of palace in­trigue re­plete with half-truths, vendet­tas and a seem­ingly be­nign in­ci­dent re­sult­ing in Home­land Se­cu­rity’s knock­ing on the door of an out­spo­ken vil­lage res­i­dent.

Be­fore his han­dler was told not to bring Arc­tic back to work — the po­lice dog equiv­a­lent of be­ing fired with no warn­ing — Arc­tic was part of a com­mu­nity polic­ing ef­fort and out­reach pro­gram in El Por­tal. Rather than bark­ing, bit­ing or sniff­ing, Arc­tic’s role was more ther­a­peu­tic. One of his fa­vorite as­sign­ments: hang­ing out with the kids at a lo­cal mid­dle school and tak­ing self­ies with them.

They didn’t even get to say good­bye be­fore his ser­vice was ter­mi­nated.

“I think it’s kinda sad be­cause the kids had started to build that re­la­tion­ship with Arc­tic,” said Kevin Lawrence, prin­ci­pal of Ho­race Mann Mid­dle School. He said hav­ing Arc­tic around helped the chil­dren be­gin to build healthy, trust­ing re­la­tion­ships with po­lice of­fi­cers, and would be a ma­jor loss for the stu­dents.

In re­sponse to ques­tions about the ba­sis for Arc­tic’s abrupt dis­missal, Vil­lage Man­ager Chris­tia Alou told the Mi­ami Her­ald that Arc­tic’s job with the po­lice depart­ment never of­fi­cially ex­isted. His swear­ing-in cer­e­mony was noth­ing more than a “feel good thing” for the res­i­dents, she said.

Emails ob­tained by the Her­ald con­tra­dict the man­ager’s ac­count. They doc­u­ment the im­ple­men­ta­tion of an of­fi­cial com­mu­nity po­lice dog pro­gram, es­tab­lished by the po­lice depart­ment and ap­proved by the former vil­lage man­ager, David Rose­mond, in 2017. Arc­tic was even added to the po­lice depart­ment’s in­sur­ance pol­icy and went through rig­or­ous train­ing paid for by the vil­lage be­fore he was sworn in by the mayor, who fre­quently touted the K-9 pro­gram.

“It was a great as­set to the com­mu­nity of El Por­tal. It was a shin­ing star to the pro­gram,” said Stead­man Stahl, pres­i­dent of the Po­lice Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion, the po­lice union in Mi­ami-Dade County. Stahl said he didn’t think the ap­par­ent dis­il­lu­sion of the K-9 pro­gram had any­thing to do with Arc­tic’s per­for­mance. “I believe the man­ager and mayor had more of a prob­lem with the han­dler than the dog,” Stahl said.

Arc­tic’s han­dler, Ron­nie Huf­nagel, was a 20-year vet­eran of the vil­lage po­lice depart­ment and served as act­ing chief for just over a year be­tween 2017 and 2018.

THE VIL­LAGE HALL FEUD

Once a star of the vil­lage and friend of the mayor, Huf­nagel had a fall­ing out with Mayor Clau­dia Cu­bil­los and her right hand, Alou, in mid-2017. Open hos­til­i­ties be­tween them broke out around Vil­lage Hall.

Records show Huf­nagel never re­ceived a writ­ten rep­ri­mand un­til late 2018. They al­leged in­sub­or­di­na­tion or un­der­min­ing the author­ity of the mayor and man­ager and fail­ing to com­ply with an of­fi­cial re­quest. There is no sig­na­ture or any no­ta­tion in­di­cat­ing Huf­nagel re­ceived the rep­ri­mands.

Af­ter en­dur­ing months of pub­lic cri­tiques and crit­i­cism by the mayor and man­ager, Huf­nagel was de­moted back to sergeant on Nov. 13, 2018.

“I have never seen so much an­i­mos­ity to­ward po­lice,” said vil­lage resi- dent Phillip An­dron­i­cos, who at­tended sev­eral of the meet­ings. “There was never any of this an­i­mos­ity when she was friends with the mayor.”

Some in El Por­tal say the bad blood be­gan over the mayor’s state­ments re­gard­ing the level of po­lice over­sight of the de­bris re­moval process af­ter Hurricane Irma. Huf­nagel sug­gested there was no po­lice over­sight, de­spite the mayor’s pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion to the con­trary. Lit­tle proof has sur­faced pub­licly to sup­port ei­ther side of the dis­pute.

Cu­bil­los did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple at­tempts to con­tact her for this story. Alou did not re­spond to the Her­ald’s re­quest for com­ment re­gard­ing Huf­nagel’s per­for­mance.

Jose Perez, for­merly of the City of Mi­ami Po­lice Depart­ment, was brought out of re­tire­ment to re­place Huf­nagel de­spite hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence as chief and no con­nec­tion to El Por­tal. Just one week into Perez’s ten­ure, Arc­tic’s ser­vices were ter­mi­nated.

“I think it was one of the steps lead­ing up to get­ting rid of the han­dler,” said Stahl. “Un­for­tu­nately you see this in small towns.”

On Dec. 10, Huf­nagel was fired with­out ex­pla­na­tion. The ter­mi­na­tion let­ter, signed by Alou and dated Dec. 9, sim­ply in­structed Huf­nagel to turn in her car and any other vil­lage prop­erty and said her ter­mi­na­tion was ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.

POST-TER­MI­NA­TION REP­RI­MANDS

Perez wrote a rep­ri­mand stat­ing Huf­nagel “failed to dis­play re­spect and rec­og­nize me by my proper rank or ti­tle” dur­ing a se­ries of meet­ings he said took place to dis­cuss Huf­nagel’s con­duct and work per­for­mance be­tween Nov. 20 and the day of her ter­mi­na­tion.

In his rep­ri­mand — dated the day af­ter Huf­nagel’s ter­mi­na­tion let­ter was signed — Perez con­cluded: “I find that Sergeant Huf­nagel’s con­tin­u­ous dis­rup­tive con­duct vi­o­lated depart­ment po­lices and pro­ce­dures. Such vi­o­la­tions amount to grounds and cause for dis­missal from the Vil­lage of El Por­tal Po­lice Depart­ment.”

“How do you rep­ri­mand some­one if they were al­ready ter­mi­nated?” Stahl said, af­ter re­view­ing the doc­u­ments pro­vided by the vil­lage. “I’m a lit­tle bit alarmed by this. I think the city is ly­ing.”

Again, Huf­nagel never signed for re­ceipt. Ac­cord­ing to Stahl, Huf­nagel was un­aware of the of­fi­cial rep­ri­mand.

A fi­nal rep­ri­mand in her file says Huf­nagel failed to re­turn vil­lage prop­erty.

Af­ter this story was first pub­lished, Alou told the Her­ald she be­lieved Huf­nagel was aware of the rep­ri­mands. She said the of­fi­cial let­ters had been placed in Huf­nagel’s mail­box and was un­sure why they hadn’t been signed.

None of the dis­ci­plinary records from 2018 were cited as grounds for ter­mi­na­tion in Alou’s let­ter, nor did the city fol­low pro­to­cols for ter­mi­na­tion with cause.

“I think it [the ter­mi­na­tion] is a lit­tle bit re­tal­ia­tory,” Stahl said. “She was well re­spected in the com­mu­nity.”

Huf­nagel had just been awarded “Of­fi­cer of the Year” by the South Florida Op­ti­mist District, in part for her role in start­ing the vil­lage’s unique com­mu­nity po­lice K-9 pro­gram.

An­dron­i­cos said he and other vil­lage res­i­dents had been go­ing to coun­cil meet­ings in sup­port of Huf­nagel be­fore she was fired, speak­ing up for their long­time com­mu­nity po­lice of­fi­cer dur­ing pub­lic com­ment.

THE FI­NAL TWIST IN THE TALE

An­dron­i­cos said he never ex­pected the re­tal­i­a­tion he faced for his in­volve­ment.

An­dron­i­cos said his re­la­tion­ship with the new chief got off to a rocky start when he re­fused to shake Perez’s hand when the two first met at Vil­lage Hall.

“I knew he was go­ing to fire Ron­nie [Huf­nagel],” An­dron­i­cos said by way of ex­pla­na­tion for any rude­ness on his part. But he never re­ally blamed Perez, he said. An­dron­i­cos said it was clear to him that the mayor was be­hind Huf­nagel’s fir­ing.

“She’s the pup­pet master,” he said.

Af­ter that, things got worse for An­dron­i­cos.

Around din­ner­time on the day Huf­nagel was fired, three plain­clothes of­fi­cers from the Mi­amiDade Home­land Se­cu­rity Bureau vis­ited An­dron­i­cos at home. The of­fi­cers, gen­er­ally tasked with com­bat­ing po­ten­tial ter­ror threats, had ques­tions for the 73-year-old pi­lot about an in­ter­ac­tion he had with Perez ear­lier that day.

An­dron­i­cos told the de­tec­tives Perez had pulled out in front of his car— a co­in­ci­dence, he said — and af­ter a few blocks of driv­ing in the same di­rec­tion, he had sim­ply pulled up along­side the squad car, rolled down his win­dow, and asked if Huf­nagel had been fired. (Wav­ing down lo­cal of­fi­cers with ques­tions and con­cerns is com­mon in the small town.)

Perez re­ported that An­dron­i­cos had threat­ened him.

Ac­cord­ing to the Home­land Se­cu­rity re­port, Perez said An­dron­i­cos had chased down his squad car and pulled up yel­ling about how Perez had fired Huf­nagel. Ac­cord­ing to Perez’s ver­sion of the story as told to Home­land Se­cu­rity, An­dron­i­cos had yelled, “You sacked Ron­nie. You bet­ter get ready,” as he pointed his fin­ger at Perez.

NO CRIME FOUND

Home­land Se­cu­rity found no crime had been com­mit­ted and closed the case.

But Perez had also made an­other call ac­cus­ing An­dron­i­cos of more threats.

Ac­cord­ing to records from the Mi­ami Shores Po­lice Depart­ment, af­ter his run-in with An­dron­i­cos, Perez called in a fa­vor with the nearby depart­ment on be­half of the vil­lage man­ager, re­sult­ing in a week of ex­tra se­cu­rity around Alou’s home. Of­fi­cers were warned that An­dron­i­cos had threat­ened to kill the vil­lage man­ager. It also named Huf­nagel as a dis­grun­tled ex-em­ployee in­volved in some way. Mi­ami Shores po­lice later found the in­for­ma­tion to be er­ro­neous and called off the in­creased pro­tec­tion. (Both Perez and Alou later de­nied ever re­port­ing a death threat, de­spite of­fi­cial records of Perez’s phone call.)

An­dron­i­cos said he was tar­geted for be­ing known as a sup­porter of Huf­nagel and Arc­tic. He said his is a cau­tion­ary tale for El Por­tal res­i­dents who might get in­volved in lo­cal pol­i­tics.

“I don’t go to the coun­cil meet­ing any more,” said An­dron­i­cos. “I’m afraid of re­tal­i­a­tion.”

Huf­nagel is pro­tected from wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion by the PBA col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, which states an of­fi­cer can­not be fired with­out cause. The union plans to take le­gal ac­tion and ex­pects Huf­nagel will be re­in­stated to her former po­si­tion as sergeant.

“We are cer­tainly go­ing to de­fend her vig­or­ously,” said Stahl.

“And they [the vil­lage staff] are go­ing to have to an­swer for their ac­tions.” What the fu­ture holds for Huf­nagel’s furry part­ner is less clear.

Alou dis­missed Arc­tic as noth­ing more than Huf­nagel’s “pet” — whose pres­ence in Vil­lage Hall ir­ri­tated her al­ler­gies — while also telling the Her­ald, “we cer­tainly could take it back.”

Arc­tic is cur­rently liv­ing with Huf­nagel and her two civil­ian dogs.

I HAVE NEVER SEEN SO MUCH AN­I­MOS­ITY TO­WARD PO­LICE. THERE WAS NEVER ANY OF THIS AN­I­MOS­ITY WHEN SHE WAS FRIENDS WITH THE MAYOR.

El Por­tal vil­lage res­i­dent Phillip An­dron­i­cos

ROBERTO KOLTUN [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

El Por­tal Mayor Clau­dia V. Cu­bil­los, left, shakes Arc­tic’s paw dur­ing a cer­e­mony in which the Siberian husky was of­fi­cially sworn in as a K-9 of­fi­cer.

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