New Fla. chief aims to reform troubled agency

Saying he "leads from the front," the chief himself made three drug arrests last month

By Susannah Bryan
Sun Sentinel

HOLLYWOOD, Fla.  Raquel Alves became another Hollywood crime victim on Monday when thieves smashed the windows of her car while she slept.

But for Alves  who was among more than 50 condo residents whose vehicles were vandalized that night  the blame does not lie with Police Chief Frank Fernandez, Hollywood's top cop since August.

A banner flown by a plane over the beach and downtown Sunday said otherwise, calling Hollywood a high crime area and putting the blame squarely on the chief.

The skyhigh message, arranged and paid for by police union leader Jeff Marano, had the intended effect, creating a political headache for City Hall.

The dig  called a childish stunt by Mayor Peter Bober and some other residents  comes at a time when Hollywood is keen on cultivating an image as a popular tourist spot and safe place to live, work and play.

Fernandez says he didn't see the banner, but read about it in the paper.

"I can't speak to silly pranks," he told the Sun Sentinel. "We are focused on rebuilding the department and setting up best practices for how we do things. I'm not going to call it success. I'm going to classify it as progress. We still have a lot of work to do."

The chief touts his accomplishments during his short tenure:
helping to negotiate a stalled union contract
increasing salaries to make up for previous pay cuts
waging an intense recruiting effort
and creating better work conditions by purchasing new squad cars and making physical improvements to police headquarters.

Saying he "leads from the front," the chief himself made three drug arrests last month.

"I just work to make the organization as professional as it can be," he says.

In the days following the union's airborne banner, city leaders have been quick to say overall crime is down in Hollywood, noting what they call a dramatic drop in property crimes.

But that's only half the story.

While burglaries and robberies declined from 2012 to 2013, murders went from 5 to 16 and sexual assaults from 38 to 77.

"Property crimes went down, but violent crimes went through the roof," says Marano, who has been openly critical of Fernandez since he came to Hollywood in August 2012 as assistant city manager in charge of public safety, a year before he was named police chief.

Some chalk up the latest skirmish to a political feud between the union and Fernandez, who rankled the old guard by bringing in outside consultants to review the agency. The audit has turned up problems with the department's use-of-force policy, missing Internal Affairs files and forgotten rape kits.

While fans of Fernandez praise him for vowing to fix the department, Marano accuses the chief of using the audit to malign his staff and damage morale.

By attacking the chief, Marano is trying to bring chaos and discord to the department, says city spokeswoman Raelin Storey.

"That is clearly the effort that is under way, trying to create fear by misrepresenting the crime data and other distraction techniques," Storey says.

Those efforts are not going to work, she says.

"There's always going to be tension when an outside chief comes in," says Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Sometimes the environment is so toxic that the new chief never gains any traction."

Like any chief facing a turf war, Fernandez has a tough challenge ahead convincing the troops that the audit was not an "act of hostility," but a way to run a professional department, O'Donnell says.
To that end, Fernandez says he seeks feedback from all ranks and even holds informal "Coffee with the Chief" meetings every month.

He acknowledges the department has been short on manpower as officers retired or left for other agencies.

"I am working with the lowest number of officers in the history of the department," Fernandez says. "I can't ask more of my officers. They are doing a great job with these significant shortages."

In two months alone, the department lost 24 officers, many to other agencies, the chief says. To make up for the losses, the department has hired 61 officers in the past year.

Hollywood now has 300 officers 14 shy of a full staff — but some of the recruits are in training and not yet on the road.

To ensure full patrol coverage, Hollywood paid its officers $751,523 in overtime last year and expects to pay another $1.3 million this year.

Instead of hiring more cops, resident Richard Birkenwald thinks the city should buy more surveillance cameras to help solve crimes  a project that's in the works.

"I totally agree with the banner, but I don't think this chief should be blamed. We had this problem prior to him," says Birkenwald, whose house is among several in his Hollywood Hills neighborhood that have been targeted by thieves.

For Alves, last week's smash-and-grab gave her a sense of deja vu.

Thieves broke into her car once before, stealing her purse while she strolled through a park in Hollywood. But she doesn't blame Hollywood  or the chief.

"I don't know that it happens here more than anywhere else," she says. "This is something that could happen anywhere."

Hollywood Commissioner Patty Asseff says she expects dozens of residents to show up at Wednesday's City Hall meeting in support of the chief.

"We're getting calls from the union saying bad things about Frank Fernandez, but he's the chief and that's his job to make sure we have a good department," she said. "I just compare it to the lockerroom mentality of the Dolphins. They're cleaning uo their locker room. We're cleaning up our police department."

Copyright 2014 the Sun Sentinel


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