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After 5 years, 'reform' got reformed

For five years, low crime and high clearance rates werea priority at the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

From 1999 to 2004, Sheriff Ken Jenne and his top commanders dressed down district chiefs who did not deliver the numbers at weekly meetings of Powertrac — the agency’s accountability system.

It wasn’t long before the clearance rate edged higher and higher until the agency was boasting more than 50 percent, almost half of that attributed to exceptional clearances.

Exceptional clearance is a way for law enforcers to claim a case has been solved, or ‘‘cleared,’’ without making an arrest or seeking criminal charges. The FBI allows agencies to clear cases by exception when they have a suspect and a strong case but cannot make an arrest for one reason or another. The technique, prone to abuse, is now at the center of a Broward State Attorney’s Office investigation into allegations that deputies wrongfully blamed crimes on people who could not have committed them because they were already in custody or out of town at the time of the incidents.

Jenne acknowledged the problems and instituted a series of reforms, starting a year ago.

One key reform: requiring deputies to submit all case evidence to the State Attorney’s Office for review before deciding whether to exceptionally clear cases. The result: a drastic drop — 7.5 percent of all cases were exceptionally cleared last year, comparedwith almost 23 percent in 2003. At the same time, 22 percent of all cases were cleared by arrest in 2004, compared with nearly 28 percent the previous year.

Cheryl Stopnick, BSO spokeswoman, said the dramatic decline in exceptionally cleared cases last year ‘‘comes as no surprise.’’

‘‘It’s a reflection of a change in our procedures,’’ Stopnick said. ‘‘There were more restrictive checks and balances put in place in 2004.’’