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Attorney: FMPD study shows ‘disaster of a police department’

FORT MYERS, Fla. Sawyer Smith is used to pointing out alleged shortcomings within the Fort Myers Police Department.

Smith, a criminal defense attorney, has represented clients alleging racial profiling, police brutality and wrongful arrests, including Nate Allen, a NFL player and Cape Coral native who was wrongly arrested in 2015 for masturbating in front of a 16-year-old.

A lawsuit filed by Allen in 2016, claiming Fort Myers police violated his fourth and fourteenth amendment rights, said the agency “created a policy and practice of encouraging its officers to use racial profiling” in making arrests, that officers were not properly trained to investigate crimes and were encouraged to “cover up” wrongful arrests.

Each point was highlighted in a critical report released last week detailing challenges within the department.

“I’m happy that the city has finally gone and done what we’ve been jumping up and down asking them to do,” Smith said on Monday. “Our leadership has sat over the top of a disaster of a police department. And what is their response? We got them to fire (former police chief Douglas) Baker. We forced (former city manager) Billy Mitchell to resign and then what do they do? They promote an engineer to be the city manager. This is inexcusable neglect. This is gross negligence. The taxpayers of Fort Myers deserve better.”

Baker was fired in August 2015 for lying during an internal investigation of Allen’s arrest. Mitchell retired the following month.

The report detailed deep-seated issues within the police department, including cronyism, ineffective leadership, corruption and limited resources that have damaged the agency’s reputation and hindered its ability to solve crimes.

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.

“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.

‘Heartbreaking, maddening’

The report has been met with shock and validation among city leaders and community members.

“It is heartbreaking, maddening, and I feel betrayed, responsible,” Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson said on Monday after reading the full report. “We will be relentless in getting this right. We have a road map forward. A new city manager, a new police chief. We will get on about the work of rebuilding. It is fair to say we are well on our way and have been for some time now. A long way to go.”

Henderson shared his initial reaction to the report during a 25-minute exclusive interview last week.

Dr. William L. Glover, senior pastor of Mount Hermon Ministries, was encouraged, but not surprised by the report.

“I think the summary really confirms and validates the concerns of the community, which before now, pretty much have been dismissed as a figment of their imagination,” he said on Friday.

Police Chief Derrick Diggs, who was hired in August 2016 after city leaders approved the $150,000 audit, deferred an in-depth response until a followup press conference slated to be held within the next few weeks.

“We’re still processing this report,” he said last week. “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.”

Kazemi, who was hired in Feb. 2016, said the 72-page report did what it was supposed to do.

“My job is to make sure the city of Fort Myers is safe,” he said last week. “And this report is telling me how to get there. We are gonna make sure that happens.”

‘Top to bottom overhaul’

Smith described officer body cameras, additional officers and street surveillance cameras as “band-aids” that won’t fix the issues outlined in the report.

He wants the Department of Justice to take over Fort Myers police.

Federal authorities investigated the department in 2016 for alleged racial discrimination and retaliation. DOJ officials offered to complete an assessment of FMPD for free, but city leaders opted for the Freeh Group study.

“You’re going to see a top to bottom overhaul,” Smith said of a DOJ takeover. “You’re going to see a whole new police department. You’re going to see racism disappear. You’re going to see trust re-instilled within the police department. You are going to see a safer community. You’re going to see economic development occur. You’re going to see people happy about moving to Fort Myers. You’re going to see people wanting to move to Fort Myers. You’re going to see an entire community breathe a sigh of relief and start growing and improving, and until then we are stagnant, if not, moving backwards.”

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