How reform turned into curse for sheriff

 

wdemarzo@MiamiHerald.com

With the power of a new crime-tracking computer system, the Broward Sheriff's Office wanted to launch a new policy to ensure the agency was properly clearing thousands of burglary cases.

The BSO brass sought permission from Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials in February 2000 - and they said to go ahead.

BSO officials then asked the Broward state attorney's office for approval - and prosecutors said absolutely not, according to correspondence between the two agencies.

BSO decided to go ahead anyway, without prosecutors' approval.

"We weren't comfortable doing business the way we were doing it, " BSO Maj. Tony Fantigrassi said Friday.

Now, Broward prosecutors and FDLE are investigating allegations that BSO deputies falsified hundreds of crime reports after the agency adopted that new policy in May 2000. The probe has not only caused friction between BSO and the state attorney's office, but documents obtained by The Herald show their relationship already was strained over the BSO's initial proposal for clearing cases.

One BSO memo said the agency was having "difficulty in dealing with the state attorney's office when seeking their opinion." Fantigrassi said BSO tried to engage the state attorney's office as a "checks and balances" to review old burglary cases along with current ones for possible clearance - and prosecutors rebuffed them.

He said that he and his boss, Col. Thomas Carney, corresponded by phone and in writing with Broward prosecutors to get them to sign off on bundles of cases that could not be prosecuted for reasons other than lack of evidence.

"We wanted desperately for the state attorney's office to be a part of this process, " Fantigrassi said. "Their office wasn't willing to handle the additional work. They didn't want to do it."

PROSECUTOR OBJECTS

The Broward state attorney's office strongly disagreed.

"We told BSO that we do not believe it is the job of a state attorney's office to be involved in any kind of process, formal or otherwise, of clearing cases en masse, " office spokesman Ron Ishoy said.

"Each case has to be fully considered on its merits, " he said. "It's pretty basic: We're here to prosecute cases if the evidence shows they merit prosecution."

Had BSO followed that standard of review, the agency might not be in the fix it is today.

Its case-clearance policy, part of BSO's new culture of crime-fighting, led to scandal: Two Weston deputies were arrested in December on official misconduct charges for allegedly falsifying crime reports.

Broward prosecutors are now targeting as "suspects" several other deputies, from Weston to Deerfield Beach.

There could have been another reason for the drive to clear crimes: With high clearance rates and low crime numbers, BSO could tout its crime-fighting statistics when it sold its services to Broward cities, urging mayors and commissioners to do away with their police departments and sign multimillion-dollar contracts with BSO instead.

NO REVIEW

BSO's policy allowed deputies to close an extraordinary number of unsolved property crimes by exceptionally clearing them without arrests and without review by Broward prosecutors - unlike procedures followed by sheriff's offices in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange counties.

One glaring example of abuse: BSO deputies improperly cleared 58 cases, attributing the crimes to Ronald Williams, 38, of North Lauderdale, who was sitting behind bars at the time the crimes occurred.

Another example: Former Oakland Park detective Joey Isabella admitted to BSO investigators that he fabricated confessions to clear cases because of intense pressure from other detectives. BSO suspended him without pay in July.

In 1999, Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne wanted to improve BSO's system of tracking crime and clearing cases.

Under previous administrations, BSO detectives relied mainly on exceptional clearance, rather than arrests, to solve crimes and boost their clearance rate.

In 1995, under the late Sheriff Ron Cochran, BSO cleared 27 percent of its crimes by exception, 15 percent by arrest, according to agency statistics.

Jenne's weapon to monitor the rates was Powertrac, an innovative computer system that could help investigators pinpoint crime trends street by street.

Jenne sought the advice of the late John "Jack" Maple, a former deputy New York police commissioner and chief architect of the New York Police Department's heralded strategies for fighting crime - Compstat, similar to Powertrac. Maple warned the sheriff to be careful about his agency's use of exceptional clearances - cases solved, or "cleared, " without making an arrest or seeking criminal charges.

The FBI allows police agencies to clear cases by exception when they have a suspect and strong evidence, such as a confession, but cannot make an arrest, possibly because the victim refuses to testify.

OLD SYSTEM FLAWED

Jenne asked his senior staff to revise what they all considered a flawed 1992 BSO policy on "multiple-case clearances."

Fantigrassi, a former homicide detective, was tapped in 1999 to help develop the department's new exceptional clearance policy for multiple cases, especially in property crimes. He called the head of FDLE's uniform crime report unit and asked about exceptionally clearing cases.

"I told them they could clear cases themselves if they know that this is the individual that did the crime and they have enough information to prosecute him for the crime, but there is something that stops them [from prosecuting] like the suspect died or witnesses died, " said Randy Luttrell, a senior manager for FDLE's statistics program.

Though FDLE gave the sheriff's office assurances, BSO was having "difficulty" with getting the state attorney's office to agree to the new policy, according to the internal BSO memo. "By involving the state attorney's office in our process, we feel that it will add another measure of credibility well beyond what [FDLE] guidelines call for, " said Col. Thomas Carney, Fantigrassi's boss.

The state attorney's office rejected BSO's plan. Afterward, discussions between BSO and the state attorney's office abruptly ended.

On Friday, Fantigrassi said it was apparent from the state attorney's office's blunt response that prosecutors did not want to work with BSO on developing a new policy on clearances.

So BSO officials, eager to inject some "integrity" in a flawed clearance process, decided to do it alone, he said.

"The best scenario would have been for the state attorney's office to review [cases for clearance], " Fantigrassi said. "We had to settle for second best."

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