Hallandale to pay to settle one of two former police officers' lawsuits

By John Holland | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 28, 2008
HALLANDALE BEACH – City commissioners have agreed to pay more than $100,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging Police Chief Thomas Magill falsified evidence, a city board held an illegal meeting and detectives persuaded a felon to lie under oath about a fellow officer.

Mayor Joe Cooper and attorney Alberto Milian, who represents former Hallandale Beach Police Officer Talous Cirilo, confirmed the city’s settlement with Cirilo but would not comment further, citing a confidentiality agreement. However, Cooper said the payment was more than $100,000, including attorney fees.

“I’d love to talk about this and tell people what happened, but unfortunately I can’t,” Cooper said.

Magill referred questions to City Attorney David Jove, who could not be reached for comment.

The settlement comes less than two months after Cirilo filed two lawsuits against the city, alleging wrongdoing in the department and City Hall. Hallandale officials fired Cirilo, alleging excessive use of force, even though a jury acquitted him on battery charges.

Cooper said the secrecy is warranted because a separate lawsuit, filed in federal court by former acting Police Sgt. Mary Hagopian, has not been settled. She promised to speak about the settlement at a later date “if I’m allowed to.”

Magill and City Manager Mike Good fired the officers two years ago after prosecutors charged them with misdemeanor battery on prisoner Michael Brack. Early on April 1, 2005, Brack beat his brother as they fought in a moving car, then attacked officers who tried to intervene, according to arrest records and police reports.

Months after the arrest, a civilian employee said Cirilo choked and used a Taser device excessively on Brack.

More than a year later, the State Attorney’s Office charged Cirilo with three misdemeanor battery counts. Hagopian was charged with a misdemeanor for using the stun gun on Brack as he struggled with officers in a jail holding area.

Defense lawyers said Magill orchestrated the charges as part of a vendetta against Hagopian and to show his bosses at City Hall he was a disciplinarian. Testimony at trial showed police employees mishandled two key pieces of evidence — a video surveillance tape and software from the Taser — distorting the confrontation between the officers and Brack, defense lawyers argued.

Prosecutors tried the officers separately, but jurors reached the same conclusion, acquitting them after about 15 minutes of deliberation.

After the acquittals, the officers tried to get their jobs back, but Magill and city officials refused.

In one of the lawsuits, Milian accused the city civil service board of holding an illegal meeting outside City Hall on Oct. 9, 2007, one week before a scheduled hearing on the reinstatement.

Florida law mandates that all meetings be advertised and prohibits public officials from meeting out of the public eye or discussing cases with each other. At least six board members met and discussed the meeting in a “knowing violation” of the law, according to the lawsuit.

Good, the city manager, could not be reached for comment.

Hagopian, a 15-year veteran, and Cirilo, on the force for five years, hired different lawyers and filed in different jurisdictions but made the same argument: Magill pressured his internal affairs officers and detectives to manipulate evidence and coerce false statements out of Brack so he could fire the officers and enhance his image as a reformer.

Magill used public money to have officers track down Brack on a Louisiana oil barge, where he ended up after leaving Broward County and forfeiting his bail, both lawsuits assert.

The State Attorney’s office dropped all the assault charges against Brack, including the attack on his brother, then used him to testify against the officers.

The chief temporarily assigned several officers to internal affairs without any training, for the sole purpose of building a false case against the officers, Hagopian’s lawyer Rhea Grossman said in court papers.

Magill sparked criminal charges against Hagopian “by preparing directly or at his direction police reports containing false or misleading information,” Grossman wrote. Both lawsuits contend Magill elicited false testimony and compiled misleading evidence that he took directly to prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch tossed out four counts last month, saying they belong in state court. He refused to dismiss two others, including one alleging Magill presented false information to prosecutors so Hagopian would be arrested. Zloch also let stand a charge that the city had a policy of not training internal affairs officers that, Hagopian argued, “encourages fabricated evidence for the sole purpose of allowing the whims of its police chief to terminate employees.”

Milian said last week that the jury’s quick acquittals proved the charges were bogus.

“This case was an abomination from the very beginning, and good officers were hurt,” Milian said. “It could ultimately have a chilling effect on officers who want to protect themselves and their colleagues but are afraid because they could get in the same type of situation.”

John Holland can be reached at jholland@sun-sentinel

.com or at 954-385-7909.

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