PolitiFact: Is Hollywood’s police union right to blast chief for homicide rate?

04/23/2014 3:51 PM

04/26/2014 11:38 PM

The police union in Hollywood has launched a high-profile drive to oust Chief Frank Fernandez, and it has literally taken its message to the sky.

In March, the Police Benevolent Association floated a banner from an airplane that flew over the beach and downtown that declared, “Hollywood a high crime area. Thanks Chief Fernandez!”

Then, on April 15, the PBA posted a billboard along Pembroke Road that stated: “Hollywood is #1 in Broward homicides in 2013. Thanks Chief Fernandez!”

We decided to investigate whether the homicide statistic is accurate and whether Fernandez can be blamed for it.

Understanding the controversy requires a bit of history about the years of feuding between city officials and police union leaders in this city of 145,000.

In 2011, the city declared financial urgency and cut officers’ pay, which led to officer turnover and protests by the union.

Fernandez became the city’s assistant city manager overseeing public safety in 2012, and chief in 2013, tasked with turning around the long-troubled department.

Though Hollywood has a popular beachfront that attracts tourists and snowbirds, as well as local residents, it has also had some famous scandals in recent years. In 2007, a handful of officers were convicted in a scheme that included selling heroin to federal undercover agents posing as mobsters. (The chief at the time was accused of leaking information about the probe before the arrests, forcing the FBI to bring it to a close prematurely.)

A separate group of officers drew national attention in 2009 after one of them crashed into a civilian vehicle, and video captured employees saying they would “do a little Walt Disney” to protect the officer and doctor a police report.

News reports in the Sun Sentinel indicate Fernandez has had some success: He has increased recruiting, made physical improvements to the police station and brought a close to contract negotiations.

Fernandez also brought in outside consultants to audit the agency, and they found problems with its use-of-force policy, missing internal-affairs files and forgotten rape kits, the Sun Sentinel reported. The union disputes the audit and says it was written by a hired consultant tasked with finding fault.

The billboard is the latest round in the battle between the union and city leaders, who say it’s just another ploy.

Jeff Marano, president of the police union, sent us Hollywood crime statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The data showed the number of homicides in the city rose from five in 2012 to 16 in 2013.

A spokeswoman for the city did not dispute the numbers, but said they come with some caveats. First, the homicides were either drug- or gang-related or domestic disputes, Raelin Storey said.

“There were not random acts of murder taking place in the city of Hollywood,” she said.

The reasons behind the homicides aren’t the point, Marano said. “A homicide is a homicide,” he said. “It’s a dead person.”

Assessing whether the number of homicides placed Hollywood in the No. 1 slot in Broward was more complicated because statewide data for 2013 have not been published yet. (Marano said he determined Hollywood was the highest by speaking with a Hollywood homicide detective who speaks with his counterparts at other departments.)

So we did our own research and asked law-enforcement agencies in Broward County to supply the number of homicides in their cities in 2013. We mostly focused our search on the larger cities or the ones that had more than five homicides in 2012.

The results:

Hollywood: 16

Fort Lauderdale: 13

Pompano Beach: 8

Lauderhill: 6

Lauderdale Lakes: 5

Oakland Park: 5

Miramar: 4

Pembroke Pines: 0

We did not find any city in Broward that had more homicides than Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, the city pointed to statistics that give residents a more favorable impression of safety in their city.

The data from FDLE showed other serious offenses, which include sexual assaults, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle thefts. In total, those offenses dropped 13 percent in Hollywood in 2013. FDLE data showed that the crime rate dropped from 5,869 per 100,000 residents in 2012 to 5,050.9 per 100,000 in 2013.

We sent the union’s statement and the city’s recent murder statistics to a few criminologists. Several experts told us that when examining small numbers from one year to the next, a jump can appear significant even when it’s not. To draw meaningful conclusions requires looking at several years of data and examining the nature of the homicides.

“Homicides are rare events in Hollywood, and as such the rates can bounce around quite a bit,” said James Lynch, chair of the criminology department at the University of Maryland and former director of the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

We asked Marano to explain why the union pinned the number of homicides on the chief. Marano cited the chief’s “poor leadership” and deployment of officers, specifically “not enough officers assigned to street-level crimes.”

But the experts we interviewed rejected the idea that the chief was to blame for the number of murders in one year.

“Let’s assume the facts are correct,” said Robert Friedmann, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at Georgia State University. “So does that mean blame chief for it? Unless the chief is the one who shoots the people, I would say absolutely not.”

While there are steps police departments can take to reduce crime, there are several factors — including neighborhood and economic conditions and drug and gang activity — that influence the number of murders in a city in a given year.

Those conditions are entirely or largely out of the control of the police, said Ronald L. Akers, a criminology professor at the University of Florida.

“We like to attribute declines in crime rates in a community to good police work, but there is not strong evidence to support that,” Akers said. “Similarly, one may want to attribute increases in crime to bad police work or an ineffective police department, but again, where is the evidence to support that? What have the police done any differently in 2013? What if the number of murders come down again in 2014?”

Our ruling

The police union’s billboard states: “Hollywood is #1 in Broward homicides in 2013. Thanks Chief Fernandez!”

Hollywood had 16 homicides in 2013, and we could not find any city that had any more homicides than Hollywood.

While the number is correct, the union cherry-picked crime statistics to find one that puts the city in the worst light. We have no idea whether the number is part of a trend or an aberration. We also know that overall, crime decreased.

The billboard places the blame on Chief Fernandez, but criminologists say the chief cannot be blamed for the number of murders, especially when it is such a small number.

We rate this claim Half True.

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