Lights! Camera! Conflict of Interest!
Sally Hester is notorious for staying out late on weekends. As unlikely a night owl as this unkempt, harried Hollywood resident seems, it is what she does in those early hours that is even more peculiar. For the last two months, Hester has spent her nights videotaping the policemen who preside over the commotion at the parking lot of SunCruz Casinos.
When asked which cluster of palms she huddles behind on her clandestine late-night forays, Hester counters, "No, I don't hide." As her car curls slowly around the corner of A1A and Palm Street, she points to her favorite spot. "That's where I usually stand when I do my taping," she says referring to a patch of lawn at a friend's house. From there one gets a clear view of the casino boat dock across the street and a parking lot on the Intracoastal. Out in the open, the spot offers no cover for Hester and her camera. "They can see me," she says.
The objects of Hester's scrutiny are Hollywood police officers who guard the casino parking lot. The officers are actually uniformed off-duty policemen, hired out by the city to Martha's restaurant in North Beach. As Hester's footage shows, however, their duties apparently extend all the way over to the SunCruz dock and parking lot 100 yards south of the restaurant. This, claims Hester, is precisely the problem. "They are working for the casino boat," Hester says. "At the same time, the City of Hollywood is suing the casino! Hello?!" To the neighbors the arrangement smacks of conflict of interest. North Beach activists want to know why the city is hiring out sworn, uniformed officers to an operation that it is currently suing.
Hester's evidence-gathering has yielded hours of video footage, and she's happy to screen the tapes for a reporter to illustrate her point. "See that," Hester motions to the TV screen, "the [officers are] nowhere near where they're supposed to be." On the screen is an off-duty Hollywood cop directing traffic out of the packed SunCruz parking lot. At the bottom of the screen, the camera flashes the time: 1:38a.m. "They're supposed to be working for Martha's," she says. "Martha's isn't even open at this time."
She fast-forwards to another scene. Again a flood of dapper revelers spills out from the boat into the streets of her neighborhood -- and into her video frame. A mustachioed man who appears to work for the casino extricates himself from the crowd and approaches Hester. "Put down the camera," he mutters, "go to sleep." The shaky camera turns away for a second, then focuses again tightly, unforgivingly on the man's face. His mission a failure, the man turns around and walks away, chased by Hester's admonition: "Leave our neighborhood!"
While her crusade against the cops is a relatively recent campaign, off-duty police officers hired by SunCruz Casinos are actually nothing new. Over the last couple of years, the company has hired off-duty officers to direct traffic and provide security for the boat's evening patrons. When the City of Hollywood hit Gus Boulis and his SunCruz Casinos with a well-publicized lawsuit last year, the hiring of Hollywood cops stopped. For awhile.
This past February, North Beach residents noticed that the policemen were back. Since then, community activists have made repeated appeals to the police chief and the city manager to stop allowing city officers to work for SunCruz. After months of empty assurances and inaction, members of the neighborhood are fed up. "They told us something would be done," Hester claims. "But the cops are still there." In the meantime she has become a fixture on the corner of A1A and Palm, repeatedly recording what she believes is proof of the community's case against the off-duty officers and the casino boat.
"It's illegal under Hollywood ordinance to hire out off-duty officers to a company under investigation," she claims, her pen pointing to a photocopy of the city ordinance. For a neighborhood that has fought a valiant battle against the big boat next door, the presence of Hollywood city police working for their adversary is a continuous slap in the face. Gus Boulis and SunCruz Casinos are currently the targets of a lawsuit by the City of Hollywood for zoning code violations and for operating without an occupational license.
The way SunCruz is getting around the ordinance, Hester argues, is by claiming that the officers work for Martha's. To the residents of North Beach, the tactic is dubious. "They're one and the same," claims Steve Welsch, the head of the Beach Defense Fund. "Besides, Martha's is also named in the investigation." But the owner of Martha's, George Zinkler, is not named in the complaint, counters Interim Police Chief Al Lamberti. "When I first came here, I took the detail off because Boulis was involved in illegal activities," says Lamberti. "I reinstated them on the condition that Zinkler sign up for the permit and he pay for the details."
To Welsch such logic smacks of slick wordplay. "All these loopholes!" he exclaims. Hester also bristles at the double talk. "The land that Martha's is on is owned by Boulis," she says. "Zinkler sublets the SunCruz land back to Boulis. They're right there together, Tweedledum and Tweedledee."
The owner-landlord arrangement isn't the only worry. A cause of greater concern is the animosity that has developed between the residents and the off-duty officers. "The details have been very belligerent with us," says Welsch. The residents also allege that the officers once routinely interfered with the jobs of parking-enforcement officers who came to ticket illegally parked cars. (The off-duty officers declined to answer questions for this article.)
Driving around her neighborhood, Hester points out the side streets and easements where casino patrons park haphazardly on weekend nights. When parking enforcement would come around, Hester says, the off-duty officers would prevent parking enforcement from ticketing the cars, the officers supposedly claiming that they had special permits or that the cars were parked illegally because of an emergency. Hester's repeated complaints about interference from the off-duty cops eventually led to tighter enforcement, but the residents realized what they were up against. "No man can serve two masters," she says. "And that's what's going on."
George Zinkler sees the complainers as the real problem. In the face of community opposition, he puts up a defiant front. "It's just a handful of neighbors," he says. To Zinkler the furor over his hiring of Hollywood cops is nonsensical. "Since the officers have been on detail, crime has gone down substantially in this area, and that's documented," he claims.
Chief Lamberti backs this assertion up. "When I canceled the detail, complaints from the neighborhood -- urination, disorderly conduct, purse-snatching, loud noise -- skyrocketed," he says. These problems have been reduced since the reinstatement of the detail, he adds. Even so, Lamberti does acknowledge the circular logic of Zinkler's argument. Before the casino's arrival, there weren't many complaints from this area at all; lucrative prey brought with it the criminal element, and inebriated customers caused disturbances. Basically, "Zinkler is paying for the problems he's causing," says Lamberti.
Zinkler also downplays the neighbors' allegations against the off-duty officers. "Listen, these are career policemen. Would they really do anything stupid for a $20-an-hour job?" he asks. Lamberti claims that rules are clear regarding their allegiance. "We tell them that they are Hollywood officers first, off-duty officers next."
But the North Beach residents say that isn't so. Paul Medfore owns a motel on the southern end of the neighborhood, and when Hester pulls up next to him in front of his home, he shares an interesting anecdote. A little after midnight recently, he caught a bicycle thief red-handed and ran after him on A1A. A half-mile up the road, he lost the thief but spotted a police cruiser, which he hailed to stop. "I told [the officer] I was in hot pursuit of a bicycle thief," he says. "He just looked at me and said, 'I'll keep my eyes open, boss,'" and drove away. The officers were in a rush, Medfore says -- the casino boat was coming in, and traffic out of Martha's had to be directed. "They didn't even give me a ride back," he adds.
While Medfore's story reflects the chilly relations between the community and the off-duty officers, residents insist that they aren't opposed to other forms of police presence. Hester points out that on-duty officers could be used instead of off-duty ones. Instead of being paid directly by Zinkler, the patrol would be paid for by the city, thus eliminating what she perceives is a conflict of interest. Instead of paying each officer $20 an hour, Zinkler would be paying the city $35 an hour for each officer instead, a substantial pay hike but a paltry sum if it meant alleviating the tense situation.
Indeed, Lamberti recently brought up other security options with Zinkler, including hiring out a different agency (the Broward Sheriff's Office, the Florida Highway Patrol), a private firm, or the on-duty officers. Zinkler declined them all. For his part Lamberti realizes the delicacy, if not the dubious ethics, of the situation. "I am not completely comfortable with the detail as it is," he admits.
But Zinkler remains unmoved. "I don't see anything wrong with the off-duty details," he insists. "I, as a private citizen, am entitled -- as long as I'm not violating the law -- to have off-duty police officers. I have my rights also."
Finishing a drive around North Beach, Hester shakes her head upon hearing Zinkler's claim. "Hiring off-duty police officers is a privilege, not a right," she says. "It's right there in the [ordinance]." Sure enough, the section on off-duty regulations in the Hollywood code says as much. But Hester is used to such oversights when it comes to her dealings with the city and the casino.
"See how quiet it is? Isn't this nice?" she asks, referring to her sleepy street. In a few hours, the large casino boat will dock, and her windows will rattle again. This weekend Hester will be back at her spot, filming Hollywood's finest as they work for someone else. "I'll keep doing it," she says matter-of-factly. "As long as it takes."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.