Fort Myers Police Department vehicle in downtown Fort Myers.

Fort Myers Police Department vehicle in downtown Fort Myers.

With elections coming up for Fort Myers’ Mayor, Randy Henderson, and City Council Members of Wards 1, 3, 5, questions remain regarding their effectiveness with the Fort Myers Police Department (FMPD).

Stemming from a unanimous vote in September 2015, a Mayoral task force was created to partner with a Lee County task force with a goal of reducing of gun violence, and getting violent offenders off the street. This plan, however, suffered a huge backlash and was labeled ineffective. The citizens complained to the Mayor and City Council about harassment and abuse of power by Fort Myers police officers. In an interview with News-Press in March  of this year, Mayor Henderson responded to questions on the effectiveness of the task force and citizen complaints: “The citizens do not bring in sufficient evidence to back up their claim, but an investigation is done when they have the facts.”

So, what are the facts?  Fort Myers City Council has very limited authority over the police department. There is a Citizens Police Review Board which acts only as an advisory to the Chief of Police. The Board reviews unsworn citizen complaints not currently under police investigation, and the also reviews closed investigations. A recent review of public records indicates the Citizens Review Board has historically been a rubber stamp on police findings, with informal administrative practices. The Board has no power to impel witnesses for testimony and there are no consequences if witnesses lie. There are also currently three vacancies on this board.

Between 2010 and 2016 FMPD received 1,300 complaints through the Citizen Response System (CRS), which averaged 18 complaints per month, of harassment and unprofessional behavior by the police. When this audit was done at the FMPD, City Council members were informed  that using the CRS was not effective for the complaints to be investigated. The citizen would have to file a complaint with an officer at the police station for them to investigate the matter. Every City Council member receives a report of the resolution if the complainant was from their Ward.

In February 2016, Saeed Kazemi was appointed City Manager of Fort Myers, and in August of that year he hired new police chief Derrick Diggs, coming to Ft Myers after 37 years with the Toledo, Ohio police department. Kazemi also hired a consulting firm, The Freeh Group International Solutions, to perform an independent investigation on corruption, fraud and regulatory practices reportedly occurring in the FMPD. The consultants’ report, released in February 2017, detailed significant corruption and fraud within the FMPD.

In addition to findings of preferential treatment, corruption, inadequate oversight/internal investigation, and lack of resources and manpower, the audit showed that FMPD is way behind in technology, with significant delays in ballistics results being available to officers.  Inexperienced detective squads and lack of leadership have caused other law enforcement agencies to be reluctant to cooperate with the FMPD.

The Freeh report further showed that the police department actively covered up the city’s violence problem in order to appear safer.

What’s happening now?

Chief Diggs created a Gang Suppression Unit almost immediately after he was hired; in January 2017 the police arrested 21 members of the Lake Boyz gang and charged them under the RICO Act.

The Freeh Group’s report gave several recommendations to the City Manager who created a Needs Report based on the suggestions. The Chief plans to have the police actively engage with members of the community in order to rebuild trust, including hiring more officers, more communications staff, and adding a substation in Dunbar.

Kazemi’s strategic plan for 2018, as laid out in his Needs Report, is to make Ft Myers one of the safest cities in Florida, with low crime rate, low homicide rate, community policing, and zero tolerance for crimes and gangs. We hope that Kazemi and Diggs can assure us of a safer city.

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