Hollywood's Finest

A decade ago, Hollywood Police Chief Richard Witt blew the whistle on corrupt hiring practices at his agency. From 1990 to 1995, qualified candidates had consistently been passed over in favor of unsuitable ones, he said. Many of those given jobs were friends or relatives of high-ranking city cops.

An independent investigation found the situation even worse than Witt suggested. During the five-year period, Hollywood hired officers with psychological problems, criminal records, and troubled pasts that should have excluded them from police work. Some cops had been rejected by as many as nine law enforcement agencies before they were allowed to patrol the city's streets. Of 59 offered employment by Hollywood at the time, 42 were found to have psychological or background problems that the city did not address, according to a probe by former Fort Myers Police Chief Donna Hansen.

"People that need to be dismissed will be dismissed," Mayor Mara Giulianti told the Sun-Sentinel at the time.

It never happened.

Instead, Witt was fired after going public with his claims, and public attention melted away. Then, six months ago, the former Hollywood police chief won a $201,100 verdict against the city. A Broward County jury believed his allegation that he was fired for his attempt to stop nepotism and cronyism in hiring.

Hollywood's decision to fire Witt -- instead of the problem officers -- has resulted in claims of abuse, drunkenness on the job, and irresponsibility. Indeed, the Washington, D.C.-based Police Complaint Center classifies the city's force as among the nation's 25 most troubled agencies.

During a three-month investigation, New Times reviewed dozens of personnel records, Internal Affairs (IA) files, and lawsuits, as well as psychological reports that were entered into evidence as part of the Witt lawsuit. Among this newspaper's findings:

Of the 42 officers whom Hansen found to have background problems, 30 are still on the force. Of the 17 deemed the most serious, ten are still employed by the city.

Among those on the force are officers whose backgrounds include charges for driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, theft, and resisting a police officer. Other background problems of those 30 cops include driving on suspended driver's licenses, using drugs, drinking while underage, having credit problems, fighting with fellow officers or superiors in the military, going AWOL from the armed services, and having poor work histories.

Some members of this class of officers have as many as 15 IA complaints against them. At least ten of the officers have been accused multiple times of excessive use of force or police misconduct.

The City of Hollywood has been sued 11 times related to alleged misconduct by these officers. So far, the city has been forced to pay more than $230,000 in judgments or settlements and outside legal fees. Two cases are still pending.

That figure doesn't include the $201,100 jury verdict awarded to Witt, plus the $531,600 his lawyer, former Hollywood Assistant City Attorney Pamela Terranova, has billed the city.

Capt. Tony Rode, now a spokesman for the agency who was among those responsible for hiring the 42 questionable officers, downplays the findings. "If you look at all these officers, can you pick out one or two that have some difficulties in his or her career? Absolutely," Rode says. "But you can find other examples. Out of those 30 officers, many are now detectives, lieutenants, sergeants. The hiring scandal -- was it as bad as projected to be? In my opinion, no. Were all the applicants underachievers or poor applicants? Absolutely not."

The Hollywood Police Department is the city's most costly expense. Of the $233 million annual budget, $57.3 million, or about 24.5 percent, goes to the men and women in blue. Although only a small percentage of Hollywood's 337 sworn officers has problematic backgrounds or has cost the city money for court costs and settlements, the minority bad cops have helped to solidify the department's reputation as a brutal, corrupt law enforcement agency. "In my experience, if someone calls with a police problem in South Florida, it's a good bet they're calling about Hollywood," says Diop Kamau, a former police officer who now runs the Police Complaint Center.

Some of the complaints associated with officers hired during the scandal include:

On May 10, 1998, Mother's Day, Hollywood police stormed into the backyard at 1847 Buchanan St. According to a lawsuit filed by 35-year-old Denise Rose, Officer Nick Singley indiscriminately pepper-sprayed the crowd and ordered Officer William Price to throw Rose to the ground. Singley and Price then repeatedly kicked Rose while she was on the ground, the lawsuit claimed. "Jew bitch!" one of the officers allegedly yelled. Rose suffered broken ribs, torn ligaments, and bruises. The city later settled her lawsuit for $35,000, plus $55,752 in legal fees. Singley, who was a neighbor of Rode's, was hired despite a juvenile charge for shoplifting and six traffic citations, according to Hansen's report. Additionally, a psychologist who interviewed him wrote: "Applicant appeared to be immature and lacked insight into his own behavior... It is likely the applicant would be a problematic employee if hired." Singley's lie-detector test revealed "pronounced physiological reactions indicative of deception" regarding a question related to illegal drugs.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson