Police nonprofit's mission: ‘Serve those who serve’
The Police Officer Assistance Trust is an extra “insurance policy” to help any LEO who is dealing with a hardship — anything from sickness to natural disasters
By Carli Teproff
MIAMI — Eliel Flores still remembers the day the “angel in a patrol car” knocked on his front door, offering to help his son, who had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Jody Wright turned to the Police Officer Assistance Trust to help pay her mortgage after a bullet shattered her leg.
And after Hurricane Michael ripped through the Panhandle, POAT sent a crew to help fellow officers repair their homes. They even brought their own chainsaws.
“The mission is to serve people who serve,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez, who serves as POAT’S president.
The organization, which was created in 1989, is an extra “insurance policy” to help any law enforcement officer in Miami-Dade who is dealing with a hardship — anything from sickness to natural disasters. The nonprofit raises money year-round — some of which comes from paycheck deductions and events including an upcoming motorcycle ride.
“We try to get there right at the beginning and help them through,” Perez said.
The history of the organization dates to 1952 when a police officer was killed in Detroit and William M. Packer, who owned a Pontiac dealership, got 100 friends to donate money to the fallen officer’s family. Out of the tragedy grew the 100 Club.
Perez said in 1968, a club started in Miami-Dade. The club eventually grew into the 200 Club.
Then in 1988, there were a couple of off-duty incidents that were not covered by the club or by local governments. The then-director of Miami-Dade police, Fred Taylor, got together with the 200 Club and POAT was born a year later.
Anyone who serves as a law enforcement officer in Miami-Dade, including those in federal agencies, can get assistance. The organization’s board reviews requests and signs off. Since 1989, more than 800 families from 45 different agencies in the county has received nearly $6 million, according to POAT.
One of the biggest challenges, Perez said: Officers have a hard time asking for help.
“They are so used to helping others,” he said. “A vast majority of the people don’t want to ask for help. They don’t want to take money away from someone who needs it more.”
Perez gets emotional when he explains why he got involved in POAT. He always contributed to the fund through payroll deductions, but he never realized the impact until Sept. 13. 2007.
Perez was in charge of the General Investigations Unit when he was alerted to a shooting in a Naranja townhouse.
He rushed to the scene to learn officer Jose Somohano had been shot and killed by Shawn Labeet. Labeet, who was later killed by officers after a manhunt that ended in Pembroke Pines, had fired an AK-47 four times from inside the townhome. He then went outside, stood over Somohano — who had been hit in the ankle and arm — and fired six more times.
Another officer, Wright, who was one of three officers who came to Somohano’s aid, was hit in the right leg and rushed into surgery.
When Perez got to Naranja, Somohano’s body, which was draped with a blanket, was placed in the back of a police car. He said he dropped to his knee and prayed over his body.
“That was not the most difficult moment,” he said recently, fighting back tears. “Dealing with the family was the most difficult moment. Seeing the mother, the father, his brother, the wife, the two kids. That was the most critical time. Because what can you tell them. They’ve lost everything.”
Perez said the county paid for the funeral and gave the family Somohano’s remaining paychecks. The family also received the proceeds from the officer’s life insurance and got funds from Florida’s Retirement System.
The POAT flew in family members and put them up in hotels to attend the funeral.
“She now had to worry about all those expenses at that catastrophic moment,” Perez said. “But at least the POAT was there from the beginning. They took care of all of that.”
From that experience, Perez said he was hooked.
“The POAT steps in and I witnessed that,” he said. “I saw they gave a little bit of comfort to a grieving family.”
More recently, they helped the families of law enforcement officers who were hit by Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle.
Miami-Dade Sgt. Ken Horgan was one of several officers who went to the Panhandle and worked on nearly 40 homes.
“We leave our gun belts and we bring our tool belts,” he said. “Being able to help our brothers and sisters is invaluable.”
For Wright, the injured officer, having POAT’s help allowed her to focus on her recovery after being shot. The wound shattered a portion of her leg and she lost more than 4 inches of bone. She was bedridden for two years.
Initially, she did not ask for help.
“As police officers we are very independent. We are very prideful,” said Wright, who has had 27 surgeries since the shooting and continues to have treatment. “But during my incident I had just bought a house. For me, it was, ‘Oh, God, I am injured. How am I going to pay for my mortgage.’ “
For the Flores family, POAT was comfort during a very difficult time. His son Joseph, a Miami officer, had a “really bad headache” on Jan. 22 and went to the doctor to have it checked out. Four days later, he was undergoing a 14-hour surgery for a brain tumor. The officer who has been on the force for four years now had to relearn to walk, talk and complete other basic tasks.
“It altered our life completely,” said his dad.
But then POAT came knocking. They’ve helped provide specialized treatment for Joseph, who still hopes to go back to work.
“It was a relief not only financially, but the fact that someone was there to take the time to worry about your son,” he said. “They took us in as family. It’s an outstanding organization that is a support we know we can rely on.”