On a recent Saturday morning, after running the license plates of suspicious vehicles around Sunrise Boulevard and enjoying a tasty $6 breakfast at Betty's Soul Food restaurant on Sistrunk Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale police received a call: "MAN DOWN."
A half dozen officers responded. Perhaps it was overkill, but on a slow morning, just maybe this call was serious. An ambulance attended to the lanky young man. He appeared withdrawn, at one point sitting on the sidewalk with his head bowed and legs crossed. An officer said he sprawled out on the street hoping a car would run over him. For the police, the adrenaline rush was all gone.
Moments later a “signal 33” came through dispatch. Man shot.
The officers rushed to their vehicles. Car doors slammed. Sirens blared. A line of police cars darted down a narrow street. One blocked oncoming traffic on Sistrunk, allowing the rest to pass without interference.
A swarm of police cars converged on a thin stretch of road. A bloodied man, lying shirtless in a patch of sand and grass, struggled to catch his breath. With one hand on his head, he winced while shielding his face from the sunlight. A second man, also shirtless, used a black t-shirt to put pressure on the bullet wound. An ambulance arrived. Apparently, the gunshot wound was self-inflicted.
The man told police he wanted to end his life after finding out his wife was cheating on him.
That’s the life of a police officer. You go from running plates, to a man sprawled out on the street, to another with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the shoulder. Adrenaline waxes and wanes. But in recent years, for the few who run toward danger rather than away, the rush just isn’t the same.
Thirty years ago, the wounds were less likely to be self-inflicted. Drug-fueled crimes resulted in significantly higher body counts. Today, crime, including murder, is down across Florida and the U.S.
Florida’s crime rate has dipped to a 44-year low, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Between 1994 and 2014, the violent crime rate, which includes murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault, declined a whopping 59 percent.
Crime is also on the decline in Broward County and Fort Lauderdale, which reported the fewest crimes since they started keeping records in 1974. Between 2013 and 2014, some crimes did increase, like forcible rapes in Fort Lauderdale and across Broward County. During that period, Fort Lauderdale also reported five more murders and 107 more motor vehicle thefts.
In addition, crack is fast becoming displaced by flakka, a $5 drug composed of questionable ingredients. Flakka causes users to see things that aren’t there, and exercise what can seem like superhuman strength. A Fort Lauderdale police officer says it’s taken six officers to subdue a 150-pound man, and even then, they struggled.
Still, the most recent stats show Fort Lauderdale’s crime rate has declined 8.3 percent. Between 2013 and 2014 in Broward, the crime rate declined 9.6 percent, and the violent crime rate declined 5.3 percent, all impressive numbers.
It’s a trend some are unwilling to accept.
“You can tell some people in my district,” says Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness, whose district includes Fort Lauderdale. “There’s still a perception (crime has) gotten worse and it hasn’t gotten better. It takes a while for people to realize it.”
And that’s not just locally. Despite declining crime rates nationwide, studies show people still perceive crime to be high. For example, half of all respondents to a 2014 YouGov survey felt the rate of violent crime has increased over the past 20 years. And yet, in 2013, violent crime was 14.5 percent below its 2004 level, according to the FBI.
Social media and online platforms have given crime news more exposure, says Maj. Victor London of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. More people are tuned in and connected, but unfortunately, content that catches on isn’t often properly vetted, he says.
“I think we need to do a better job of marketing our success,” London says.
Police and Community
Both London, a major in the FLPD operations bureau, and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel credit intelligence-led and community policing with helping to reduce the crime rate.
But Donna Guthrie, president of the Melrose Park Homeowner’s Association, says if crime is down in Fort Lauderdale, the city’s police department doesn’t deserve much credit.
“I don’t think the reduction is anything the police officers are doing,” Guthrie says. “I think it’s more the community getting involved.”
Guthrie, the association’s longtime president, says Melrose Park has worked to hold police accountable, and encourage residents to work on their behalf. The approach hasn’t been easy.
“Normally, in my neighborhood, you’re calling about a crime and they’re questioning you as if you’re the perpetrator,” Guthrie says. “That intimidated a lot of folks from calling the police.”
She says she challenged her residents to get to know each other and become aware of what’s happening on their street.
“We became personally involved,” Guthrie says. “The cops don’t live here. We don’t have neighborhood police. Neighborhood police say to me that you’re invested in my neighborhood. I say, ‘This is your community, and you have to take responsibility for your own community, so if you see something, you say something.’”
Fort Lauderdale PD and Broward Sheriff’s Office community policing initiatives include special teams, officers who regularly attend homeowners association meetings and educating residents on what they can do to protect themselves and their property.
It’s outreach 58-year-old Randy Wellons, a five-year resident of Victoria Park, appreciates.
“But I have my dogs too,” Wellons says, referring to two cuddly Havanese. “They’re always the first alarm whenever there’s something going on outside.”
More hard-hitting police efforts include intelligence-led work, such as pulling from various data sources to identify the city’s most prolific criminals, London says.
“We have officers who are very familiar with the repeat habitual criminals,” London says. “So that if a certain type of crime happens in a certain area, they kind of have an idea of who that person is, where they hang out and where they may be going. We can focus our efforts on that area rather than broad searches.”
The BSO’s VIPER (Violent Intervention Proactive Enforcement Response) unit attacks the most violent criminals in the county—the six percent of criminals committing 65 percent of the violent crimes, Israel says. The unit’s efforts have resulted in the arrest of between 600 and 700 violent felons, which has also reduced burglaries, he says.
In addition, in Broward County, first-time youth offenders with misdemeanors receive a civil citation rather than being arrested. Young people must agree to perform up to 50 hours of community service and participate in tailor-made interventions. The program aims to keep kids out of jail, Israel says.
“One bump in the road at 14 or 16 doesn’t preclude them from going into the military or law enforcement or competing on a level playing field for a job,” Israel says. “If they successfully complete the Civil Citation Program, the incident goes away like it never happened.”
Broward County’s recidivism rate is between 60 and 65 percent, but for Civil Citation Program participants it’s as low as five percent, Israel says. Eventually, he wants to extend the program to offer repeat youth offenders second and third chances.
Carey Villeneuve, crime committee chairperson for the Victoria Park Civic Association, says repeat juvenile offenders who commit home burglaries, a felony, are among his community’s biggest headaches.
“We are being preyed on by a class of criminals that the state of Florida refuses to punish,” Villeneuve says. “They go into the system, and then they’re back out within two to three weeks.”
Young people are typically held for 21 days.
“The longer they stay, the harder they become,” Commissioner Holness says. “They get dragged deeper in.”
However, Villeneuve says the numbers of Victoria Park burglaries is low; he estimates the area’s 8,000 residents experience about five burglaries a month.
Since joining the Melrose Park board in 2004, Guthrie says she’s seen neighborhood burglaries drop from 66 a month to two or less.
In Fort Lauderdale, burglaries declined 26.8 percent, while across Broward the rate of burglaries declined 22 percent, according to the FDLE report.
It’s tough to pinpoint why crime is declining. Experts from different ideological backgrounds argue the drop can be attributed to a number of other factors besides police and community efforts, such as an improved economy, an aging population, increased incarceration, even abortion.
Major London says Fort Lauderdale has benefited from the national trend, although he doesn’t think “anyone is really filled in on what exactly is causing it.”
"Now we’re marching into town."
There’s plenty to consider if we’re to explore the hows and whys. But still, why is there a perception crime hasn’t declined?
“Crime is going down, but police brutality is going through the roof,” says local activist Elizabeth Tavares. “Police brutality and vigilantes. It’s probably a combination of the systematic racism and the [false] idea of what a black person is, or what a Latino person is. They’re actually engaging in that paradigm that blacks and Latinos are criminals. They’re not.”
The crime rate has declined against the backdrop of numerous high-profile shootings of unarmed black men, which captured widespread attention in 2012, a year bookended by incidents in Florida.
Trayvon Martin’s death in Sanford, where he traveled from Miami Gardens to visit his father, put the spotlight on fractured relations between the police and black communities and racist depictions of blacks. By the end of the year, Jordan Davis, another unarmed 17-year-old, was killed in Jacksonville.
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who said he feared for his life after confronting Martin, was acquitted of second-degree murder. Michael Dunn, who alleged Davis pointed a gun at him from his vehicle, received a mandatory life sentence.
Since Martin’s death, tensions have erupted in cities nationwide.
“The public is not very forgiving when trust is broken,” Elliott Rosen, a longtime trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol, tells his criminal justice students at Broward College.
In Broward, the Dream Defenders, who rose to national prominence for their activism around Martin’s death, continue to spotlight national incidents, while also agitating local officials. In February, organizer Demetrius Vaughn interrupted a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting where police were recognized for their work during the 2014 Winterfest Boat Parade. Activists had staged a “Black Lives Matter” protest during the parade and say police mistreated them.
That brings us to this summer. If the deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Michael Brown tell us anything, it’s that tensions tend to boil over. In June, shortly after nine parishioners were killed by a crazed racist during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Dream Defenders and other local activists organized a vigil and protest walk in Fort Lauderdale.
More than 100 marchers gathered at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center on Sistrunk before winding through the neighborhood chanting protest songs and waving signs with slogans like “End White Supremacy.” They concluded with speeches and prayer nearly two miles away at the Mt. Hermon A.M.E. church on NW Seventh Terrace.
“We’re black, and our bodies are under attack!” belted out Vaughn, kicking off the march, and startling people in the crowd.
“What do we do? Stand up and fight back!” Vaughn shouted.
“Fight back!” the protesters responded.
“Mama, mama, can’t you see...
“What the state has done to me...
“They keep trying to shut us down...
“Now we’re marching into town...
“They keep trying to hold us down...
“And now we’re gonna stand our ground...”
Leading protesters in a call-and-response chant to the tune of a Marine Corps cadence, Vaughn and the group marched through the mostly black neighborhood, trailed by police officers in marked vehicles. Drivers didn’t seem too bothered by the disruption. Some honked in support. Onlookers wore faint smiles on their faces.
Wearing dark sunglasses, Sheriff Israel joined dozens of his officers, sharply dressed in crisp green uniforms, at the library the day of the march. He says crime has declined in Broward because BSO promotes transparency and has fostered a healthy relationship with the community.
“You cannot have a Ferguson and then come out, and if you’re not engaged with the community, expect the community to get behind you and support you,” he says. “These relationships have to be in place already.”
“I’m with our pastors, I’m with our homeowners associations, I’m engaged in all our communities, so God forbid we have a critical incident, we’re going to be able to heal and come together as a community. There’s a trust that you’re not going to have in other places.”
And Sheriff Israel believes the community is receptive.
“Absolutely. 100 percent. This isn’t even an area we patrol,” he said of the area where the march took place. “This is actually in Fort Lauderdale, but here we are because this is important to us. We have majors here, we have captains here, we have colonels here, because this is important, and that’s why we’re all here.”
"Those conversations need to be had."
Neither tense police-community relations, nor the decline in crime, are deterring some from pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Slated to graduate from the Broward College police academy in the fall, a bespectacled Johnny Narvaez says the recent high-profile police incidents have taught him how to de-escalate tense situations.
“Instead of taking an aggressive manner, treat an individual as a person, regardless of their history,” says 29-year-old Narvaez. “Make that person comfortable.
“The best weapon is a person’s words.”
At the college, well-mannered students like Narvaez salute Linda Wood, dean of its Institute of Public Safety, as she passes. They walk the halls dressed in the uniform of their program, whether it’s the police academy, military studies or fire and emergency services. On this day Narvaez wore a white button-down shirt, dark dress pants and duty belt, fitted with tools and a plastic gun, to get in the habit of wearing a police uniform and all its accoutrements.
The institute includes a 22-station firearm range, a virtual driving simulator to prepare for high-impact situations and a crime-scene investigation room, where students enter bloody environments, dust for fingerprints and look for clues. (The blood is fake.)
“We do put some stress on our cadets when they’re going through the academy,” Wood says. “It’s really important that we teach them to work with distractions. We teach them interpersonal skills, and we teach them to be kind. Can everybody improve on those skills? Yes. I can, you can, everybody can. Our scenarios are set up so that there’s a communication facet to that.”
In one of two gyms, about two dozen sweaty men and women dressed in uniform gray t-shirts and knee-length blue gym shorts complete circuit training in silence, too winded to release their pain with a huff or grunt.
“They are new recruits,” Wood says. “You can tell they’re not in great shape.”
Even if the police beat is less exciting than it was in the ’80s, enrollment has held steady, Wood says. Television shows like CSI boost interest in crime scene investigation.
“That’s about the only trend I can tell you impacted our classes,” Wood says. “It was a TV trend, not necessarily a real-life crime trend.”
About 380 students a year are enrolled in the school’s police academy, which includes full-service basic training for all Broward County agencies. Roughly 1800 students are enrolled in Broward College criminal justice courses, which touch on current events involving police officers.
“Everybody talks about Ferguson, everybody talks about Baltimore, everybody talks about Cleveland, everybody talks about, even in Fort Lauderdale, with the unfortunate smacking of the homeless man, and the deputy running the mentally ill person through the courthouse,” Wood says. “There are things that come up in the course that impact the perception of law enforcement, in general, by the community. Those conversations need to be had, and we’re having them in the classroom and we’re having them in the theoretical training.”
Trooper Rosen opened his introduction to criminal justice class one evening with a current events discussion. One woman said her home had been broken into over the weekend. The incident was unfortunate, but timely; the previous class had covered crime scene investigation.
“Whoever it was, they left a lot of fingerprints behind,” she said.
“Sounds like a teenager,” another student offered.
Aysha Mallik, a tall and slender 34-year-old bartender with thick glasses and a bright red bob, stood in front of her peers to talk about news of racist emails and texts sent by police officers in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
As a woman of mixed race - she described herself as Hispanic and British Pakistani - she said she wants to become a police officer to change perceptions.
“We look at the officers to protect us, especially in the communities where we live and work,” she said. For that to happen, say says, they need to see the police differently.
Three of the Fort Lauderdale officers in the racist email scandal were fired, and one resigned.
“I actually want to be an officer and I don’t want to be judged like that,” she said. “I want my kids to know it’s not going to be the same. It’s going to be better.”
“You’ve got to be careful with your email,” a student said.
“All public record,” Rosen added.
Another student got up in front of the class and lamented that everyone was staring at her.
“How does that feel?” Rosen asked. “You feel the heat? You want to be a police officer.”