FORT MYERS, Fla. Internal preferential treatment, failure to address integrity issues and a lack of resources has impacted the community’s perception of the Fort Myers Police Department and its relationship with other law enforcement agencies.
An “unprecedented” report released on Wednesday detailed findings and recommendations outlined by Freeh Group International Solutions, LLC., a Delaware-based risk management firm hired by the city to review the department.
The $150,000 audit, consisting of more than 200 interviews with current and former employees, was approved by city council members about four months before police chief Derrick Diggs was hired in August 2016.
“It helps me in terms of assessing the department and quickly allowing me to do the things I need to do to move this department in the future,” Diggs said. “The needs assessment is something that needed to be done.”
A copy of the full audit can be read here.
The assessment outlined a number of concerns that have festered within the department for years:
Budget shortfalls in 2008 forced the department to offer buyouts to a large number of experienced officers.
“The city lost a great deal of very experienced officers, and you just don’t replace that overnight, and that’s a problem,” said Robert O’Neill, who co-conducted the audit.
Ongoing staffing shortages have increased officer workload, which also impacted how homicides are investigated.
“A number of the detectives are handing caseloads that are way too much,” O’Neill said. “If you handle a high case load, you can’t cover all the various leads.”
O’Neill suggested the department, which has been criticized for its number of unsolved homicides, should adapt a team approach to killings. Instead of one detective, multiple investigators should be assigned to a homicide.
“There is real thought within the department that preferential treatment permeated the entire organization,” O’Neill said. “In other words, the great majority, almost every person we interviewed, said there was a cliqueish system in the department. Either you were in or you were out.”
Many department supervisors came from the narcotics division and worked their way up, O’Neill said. While it is often good to promote from within, it has had unintended consequences for the agency, he added.
The report also praised the hiring of a police chief from outside the department.
“If you promoted from within, it would’ve brought skepticism and criticism from the public,” O’Neill said.
Rule violations were not investigated, which resulted in internal allegations growing and distrust from other law enforcement agencies.
“When there’s allegations, that leads to distrust, and when there’s allegations of distrust, there’s a lack of people working together,” O’Neill said. “And other agencies can be affected by it.”
A lack of room has forced the department to do “more with less,” which doesn’t make sense, O’Neill said.
“It’s very much of a stopgap measure,” he said. “Eventually to do the job right you need the proper resources.”
One recommendation requiring immediate action is hiring more people to answer 911 calls.
“The fear is from within the police department was that someone could get hurt or worse if they don’t adequately respond to the 911 calls,” O’Neill said.
Diggs outlined actions that have already been taken:
- Hiring four emergency dispatchers.
- Deploying 142 body cameras.
- Pending restructuring of the command staff.
- Hiring more officers.
- Hiring a full-time public information officer.
- Updated training, including bias and community engagement.
- Decentralizing police operations. The department is considering building 7-12 substations around the city.
Implementing all of the recommendations will take about five years, city manager Saeed Kazemi said.
“We have a road map that we’re going to follow,” he said. “And that’s the growth management that we, that as a city manager I didn’t have, as the police chief he didn’t have.”
Further details on next steps will be announced within the next few weeks, officials said.
WINK News reporter Michelle Kingston has more on the audit’s findings and the next steps for the department: