The Naked Truth

Sheriff Ken Jenne's 34-year career in public service always seemed like a steady, inexorable march upward. He climbed from hotshot assistant state attorney to a high-profile member of the Broward County Board of Commissioners before moving on to the Florida Senate, where he served for 20 years. In 1998, after the death of Broward Sheriff Ron Cochran, Governor Lawton Chiles appointed Jenne to run the largest sheriff's agency in America.

Widely acknowledged as the most influential elected official in Broward County, Jenne was elected to a third term in November 2004, facing only nominal opposition.

The sky was the limit. With Jeb Bush term-limited out at the end of this year, the gubernatorial race was an open field. In the early handicapping, the round-faced and compactly built sheriff seemed a prime contender.

Then came the Powertrac scandal.

Powertrac was a complex statistical system used to quickly assess and respond to crime patterns. Modeled after Compstat, a seminal crime-fighting tool developed by the New York City Police Department in the early 1990s, Powertrac powered up just as Jenne became sheriff. He wholeheartedly embraced the system, torturing a catchy acronym from the name: Provide Objectives Where Enforcement Resources Target Responses Against Crime.

Suddenly, amazing things were happening when BSO patrolled neighborhoods. Crime plummeted and the rates of solved crimes soared. Other police departments in Broward — and all over the state — looked like Keystone Kops compared to crack crime fighters of the BSO.

John DeGroot, a former advisor to Jenne before the growing administrative scandal drove them apart, jokingly describes the change as a "law-enforcement Lourdes," a crime-fighting miracle.

But Powertrac turned out to be not a miracle but a house of cards. By early 2004, the Broward County State Attorney's Office (SAO) was immersed in an investigation of widespread falsification of records by BSO deputies. Particularly skewed were BSO's rates of solving crimes in Pompano Beach and Oakland Park as compared to the numbers generated by the disbanded police departments.

Interviews with current and former BSO employees and independent investigators, as well as a careful reading of court and SAO documents, suggest that Jenne and his top men had long known of the problems underlying Powertrac and the improbability of its results. Despite his strong protestations that he was ignorant of the falsifications, Jenne was clearly familiar with the distorted statistics, which were paraded before him during the weekly Powertrac sessions he presided over. He signed verifications attesting to the numbers' accuracy before they were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He'd wielded the stats to convince municipalities to scrap their own police departments and contract with BSO.

Jenne's second in command, Undersheriff Tom Carney, had personally blocked nascent investigations that could have blown the walls down on the numbers façade much earlier.

The Broward State Attorney's Office, now in its third year of investigation, has grown frustrated by the stone wall BSO has presented investigators. Last September, Timothy Donnelly, the office's lead public corruption prosecutor, complained in a letter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that many at BSO had "lied, continue to lie or are keeping silent about the corruption" and are also "throwing up absurd obstacles to the investigation."

So far, prosecutors have only squeezed a few plea bargains out of a handful of low-level deputies; the one case to make it to court, Christian Zapata, ended in a mistrial three weeks ago because of a paperwork snafu. As for the BSO brass who apparently orchestrated the widespread fraud? Most have either retired with pensions or continue to work.

Meanwhile, deputies who've been frank with SAO investigators about the system of dishonesty that created the crime stat scandal have been punished by BSO, critics say, while those with faulty memories find the protection of the agency.

The clear evidence of widespread falsification is perhaps most telling in the comparison of crime stats before and after the scandal broke. In Weston, for example, once considered BSO's shining star of clearing crimes, the rate of "solving" crimes in 2003 was 62 percent. The percentage plummeted to 19 percent for the first half of 2005.

"So BSO," DeGroot quips, "has clearly stopped doing whatever it said it was not doing."

And nobody mentions Jenne anymore as a leading gubernatorial candidate.

For Jenne and his top men, Powertrac had been a purifying water, but to the men and women on the front lines, the much-hyped accountability system was a drink of poison.

Joe Isabella, a quick-talking 36-year-old with a bantam build, hired on to the Oakland Park Police Department in 1996 as a patrolman, but he found things worked differently after BSO took over in August 2000.

He routinely got reports back, sometimes with a note telling him to reclassify a burglary to a theft, which is a lesser crime. "All my elements of a burglary were red-inked out — leave this out, put this in instead," he recalls. "You'd turn a report in three or four times and it just kept coming back."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson