FORT MYERS, Fla. Taunya Cola still has faith in the Fort Myers Police Department – even with her nephew’s unsolved killing and a scathing report questioning the agency’s ability to solve homicides.
“I don’t want the people to just strictly write off these officers or write off the police department, because there is still good there,” said Cola, whose 24-year-old nephew was murdered three years ago.
Cola was among dozens expected at a Thursday evening vigil at Dunbar Community School for 19 people who were violently killed in the city last year.
The vigil comes one day after an audit detailed deep-seated issues within the police department, including cronyism, “lack of effective leadership,” corruption and limited resources that have damaged the agency’s reputation and hindered its ability to solve crimes.
“The interviewees described a culture of failure and defeatism and believed that key stakeholders have often resorted to blaming external forces, like the State Attorney’s Office and the minority community, rather than looking critically within the department in an honest effort to identify solutions,” the report said.
More than 200 current and former department employees were interviewed for the audit, which was done at the request of city manager Saeed Kazemi and completed by Freeh Group International Solutions Inc.
Lack of experience, leadership
Much of the department’s troubles began in 2009, when a buyout eliminated many experienced officers and supervisors, forcing the agency to promote officers “to detectives and supervisors without adequate experience or the necessary training,” the audit said.
“Many supervisors did not have significant experience conducting complex investigations, such as homicides or internal affairs investigations,” the report said. “As a result, there was a lack of understanding by these supervisors concerning complex, criminal investigations.”
Supervisors focused manpower on low-level crimes and issuing citations, which helped boost the department’s crime enforcement numbers, the report said.
“However, the most violent offenders were often not prosecuted and their crimes remain unsolved,” said the report, which can be read here.
Instead of allocating appropriate resources to shootings and killings, “officers were directed to deal with the general public in a heavy-handed manner,” the report said, adding that such spawned complaints “and appears to have exacerbated tension and distrust within the communities in which these actions took place.”
Inconsistent procedures for developing effective cases “contributed significantly to a number of cases not being prosecuted,” said the report, which added that prosecutors “had different preferences regarding the manner in which investigations were presented, which contributed to a lack of uniform procedures.”
A WINK News analysis of court data found that while violent crime made up 7 percent of all FMPD arrests in 2016 (4 percent for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and 5 percent for Cape Coral police), 45 percent of Fort Myers violent crime arrests were not prosecuted (35 percent for Cape Coral police and 45 percent for LCSO).
Here’s a list of the most common violent arrests in Fort Myers:
- Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill (57)
- Aggravated battery offender knew/should have known victim was pregnant (23)
- Weapon offense – Missile into dwelling, vehicle, building or aircraft (21)
- Aggravated battery person uses a deadly weapon (19)
- Battery on officer, firefighter, EMT, etc. (16)
- Vehicle theft – Grand theft of motor vehicle (16)
- Second-degree murder dangerous depraved without premeditation (14)
- Robbery with weapon (11)
- Robbery no firearm or weapon (10)
- Battery – Commit felony battery
Overall, 316 out of Fort Myers’ 5,076 total arrests in 2016 were for violent crimes, according to court data. WINK News investigative reporter Lauren Sweeney dives deeper into the numbers:
‘Don’t give up hope’
Many city leaders, including mayor Randy Henderson and police chief Derrick Diggs, received the 71-page report moments before its findings were announced during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Diggs, while walking into City Hall late Thursday morning, deferred comment until a followup press conference slated to be held within the next few weeks.
“We’re still processing this report,” Diggs said. “We’ll go after the recommendations and make sure those recommendations are concluded. We are going to move forward and do the things we need to do as a police department.”
Henderson said Thursday afternoon that he had only begun to read it.
“Every institution goes through a cycle of ups and downs, a rebirth, if you will,” he said. “I very much think that we’re in that stage right now.”
City Councilwoman Gaile Anthony, who represents the southeast part of the city, pushed residents to read the report.
“When I ran for this seat my major objective was to hire a outside strong police chief and to do a thorough review of the FMPD, as I believe we have had issues for several years that have not been resolved,” she wrote in an email to her constituents Wednesday night. “Our city manager is following through on all of my request(s) of outside review of major departments that serve our citizens in order to establish best practices, procedures and improve all services to our citizens.”
Councilman Forrest Banks, who said he read part of the report, wasn’t surprised by its findings.
“Nothing in that report was alarming,” said Banks, who represents southwest Fort Myers. “I just figured we were going to hear some things we didn’t want to hear. Crime activities, the shootings, and all of that stuff has sort of been building for the last four years.”
Fort Myers police spokesman Lt. Jay Rodriguez said the key to the department’s success is trust and cooperation from the public, which the report said was lacking due to the agency’s inability to solve violent crime.
“Don’t believe all you hear, and I don’t mean that from me, I just mean for people talking and stuff like that,” he said. “In order to have a good successful safe community, you have to have a good police department. But in order to have a good successful police department, you have to have a community that wants to work with the police department and help us, help you.”
It’s advice Cola hopes others will follow.
“So, I say to the families, don’t give up hope,” she said. “Regardless of what’s being put in the media about the department. You trust God that they’re going to make things right for you.”