In Florida, Cops Flout the Law and Continue Working

In Florida, Cops Flout the Law and Continue Working
Illustration by Joseph Laney

The call came in to police at 1:16 a.m. November 22, 2009: a burglary in progress at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, a former yacht club that had become a resort hotel perched on the Intracoastal Waterway just off the 17th Street Causeway.

Kenneth Post, the burglar, was a 46-year-old, six-foot-two slab of crime hailing from Hackensack, New Jersey. Since 1986, he'd served several stints in Florida State Prison for crimes including cocaine sales, burglary, and battery on a law enforcement agent. He'd been out for six years.

Since Halloween, he'd twice looted the G, the Hilton's outdoor bar, after hours.

That night, Post walked into a side entrance of the hotel and headed straight for the bar. He took a bolt cutter from under his shirt, clipped the lock, grabbed some bottles of liquor, jumped into his car, and split.

A security guard noticed him on a camera monitor and called Fort Lauderdale Police. Sgt. Michael Florenco, driving an unmarked late-model gray Toyota Camry with two detectives as passengers, pursued Post's white Cadillac. For two miles, they careened through the empty streets at high speeds, traveling north.

The pursuit ended after Florenco rammed and immobilized Post's car, then arrested the suspect.

Weirdly, though, Florenco later filed a false police report stating that during the chase, Post had tried to fake a left turn and rammed the Toyota, forcing both vehicles to spin out. Once the vehicles came to rest, the report claimed, Post rammed the Toyota again.

Then things got even stranger. Despite the ginned-up report, the cop continued to work the streets. The reason: State regulations created to protect law enforcement agents from being held accountable allowed him more rights than ordinary taxpayers.

While officer misconduct is now being exposed more commonly than ever before via use of camera phones and public records, officers are part of a chain of injustice that allows those who commit grievous infractions, such as lying on a police report or worse, to keep their licenses and remain on the job.

A two-month New Times review of state, county, and local records found that at least 17 officers continue to operate despite having four or more complaints against them with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which certifies law officers.

Dozens of other officers serve despite having three complaints.

These officers' alleged misdeeds include aggravated assault, domestic violence, giving false statements, and perjury.

In Florida, officers charged with such malfeasance have the edge over their accusers, an advantage formalized in an arcane 1,600-word statute called the "Officers' Bill of Rights" that mandates an onerous system of checks and balances tilting heavily in favor of accused cops. Florida is one of 14 states, including California and Illinois, with such a statute. Each one ensures that misbehaving officers can get away with fudging the rules — or at least that their dismissals cost taxpayers a lot of money.

Among the Bill of Rights' more interesting tenets: It dictates that inquisitors interrogate a suspect at a "reasonable hour," preferably when the officer is on the clock; requires rest breaks during that questioning; and disallows "offensive language" or threats during the inquiry.

"Because of that system, you can commit crimes and keep your license," said Lisa Womack, former police chief in Lakeland, who is now a law enforcement consultant and a member of the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. "In some cases, the focus is not even on employee misconduct... This process allows officers to appeal anything, which makes it very difficult to make cases stick."

Phil Stinson is a nerd. Bespectacled and brusque, the 51-year-old ex-cop is a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He lives in a world of terms like "decision-tree analysis" and "quantitative variable."

Over the past decade, he has compiled the largest database of police misconduct in the United States. With his burly build, graying hair, and square jaw, he screams law enforcement. But his pursuits place him far outside the clubby confines of a uniformed street patrolman.

The two years Stinson spent as an officer with the Dover, New Hampshire police department left him disillusioned, he says. Handcuffed suspects were beaten, and his colleagues filed false reports.

In 1988, Stinson left the force and studied law. Later he became a civil rights lawyer in Pennsylvania, but then, in 2002, he pleaded guilty to misusing $30,000 in client funds, jailed, and then lost his law license.

After resolving to turn his life around, he blended his legal acumen and cop experience into academic pursuits. He began looking into crime by police in 2005 as he entered graduate school at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

"I started doing this, as I saw a void in research," Stinson says. "There were no good stats or data on cops in trouble and what happens to them. I had seen things when I was a cop in New Hampshire I couldn't believe... and I just started thinking about that."

Stinson decided to concentrate on the hard numbers. These days, he rattles them off like an accountant who's just finished a lengthy tax return. From 2005 through 2011, he tracked 478 cases in which Florida cops were arrested or charged with crimes: There were 67 simple assaults, 46 aggravated assaults, 25 cases of forcible fondling, and 63 DUIs. Perhaps most exasperating, though, were 13 official misconduct charges. Of those, he notes, "some... hide the true nature of the offense, so, for example, instead of rape, they get an official misconduct."

Stinson pauses before continuing. "Violence, sex, and alcohol are the primary offenses, but sometimes the crimes an officer is charged with do not match the narrative. For example, a guy involved in a domestic case while he's drunk may just get charged with public intoxication. He should get charged with assault, but in some of these, there are more favorable charges so that the officer can, even if he or she is found guilty, continue to carry a gun and be an officer."

Stinson also finds that juries, judges, and prosecutors are often predisposed to leniency for an officer. The prosecutors rely on the cops to help build cases, while judges and juries generally see law enforcement as a beacon of righteousness.

Stinson collects only the cases in which an officer has been arrested or charged.

"Going into this, I thought that if you get arrested as a police officer, you lose your job whether you are convicted or not," Stinson says. "I am surprised at the number of officers with misdemeanor convictions who keep their jobs."

How did the cops free themselves from regulations that might have forced them to, say, tell the truth about ramming a burglar's car as happened in Officer Florenco's case in Fort Lauderdale?

It starts with a raging river of political cash. Between 2004 and 2012, the Florida Police Benevolent Association handed out $2.5 million in political donations to legislators, according to a review of campaign finance records and tax forms. Other cop union groups have forked over $2.3 million more since 1996 to politicians around the state. Even more has been given by a dozen political action committees.

Some of that political coin has persuaded the state to ensure pensions are kept intact, increase health insurance subsidies, and pay into the officers' retirement disability program. But it has also provided an open field for abuse, which traces to the Officers' Bill of Rights. The law was authored in 1974 by a homicide cop and state Fraternal Order of Police president from Miami named Tony Fontana, who was the first lawmaker in Florida to serve as both a legislator and a police officer at the same time. A Rhode Island native and Navy veteran, he retired from the police department as a lieutenant in 1975. Later he served as chairman of the Florida Parole Commission.

Florida, along with Maryland, was the first state to pass this sort of statute, which gave law enforcement officers a special defense when they got into trouble. Over the years, lawmakers added more beef. In 1982, prison guards were added to the measure, and by 2015, these corrections officers represented 60 percent of the cases heard by the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, a 19-member panel composed of law enforcement members and political appointees charged with adjudicating complaints about officers.

The protective statute was dramatically broadened when Mike Fasano took office, as he introduced measures to strengthen the statute. The Republican lawmaker from Pasco County who served in the Florida Legislature from 1994 to 2012 received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign support from law enforcement groups.

These days, Fasano says his legislation was aimed at protecting cops who were wrongfully accused, often by suspects or their families. "The last thing good cops want are bad cops in their agency," he explains. "But there is nothing else besides that Officers' Bill of Rights to protect those officers when all of a sudden someone comes along and files a false accusation."

Fasano's biggest gift to the police lobby was 2009's Senate Bill 624, known to its opponents on the statehouse floor as the Bad Cop Protection Act. The law requires all evidence against a law enforcement officer to be provided ahead of questioning.

Steve Oerlich, a former state senator who served as sheriff of Alachua County from 1993 to 2006, was one of the no votes. Providing evidence ahead of questioning set the table for deception, an understandable human reaction when one's job is in jeopardy.

The measure passed 116-0 in the House. On the Senate side, it was approved 25-13.

"No one wants the handle of anti-police, which is how the unions cast someone who might vote against a bill like that," Oerlich says. He adds, "The unions sometimes seem more concerned about protecting officers who are very bad than they are about being involved in the profession of law enforcement."

In Florida, Cops Flout the Law and Continue Working
Illustration by Joseph Laney

Sitting in the Gilchrist County Jail in November 2010, Michael Devanie had every right to believe he would be terminated from the prison guard job he had held since 1988.

The 44-year-old officer at the Lancaster Correctional Institution, a lockup for young offenders 30 miles west of Gainesville, had been arrested and charged with cruel or inhumane treatment upon an inmate causing great bodily harm, a third-degree felony.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Devanie and a colleague, James Barry, forced 21-year-old Samuel Dread to exercise in 86-degree summer heat, refusing him water even though he pleaded for some. Then Dread fainted. He was later placed into a medically induced coma and eventually recovered.

"The investigation also found that the officers refused the inmate's request for medical assistance and then, after the inmate collapsed, failed to promptly summon medical personnel," the FDLE said in a news release announcing Devanie's arrest.

"I will not tolerate this unlawful behavior, and both individuals are being terminated," Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil said at the time.

Yet Devanie last year was paid $41,439 for his job as a vocational teacher in the state's prison system, state records show. His FDLE certificate is clean.

Charges against Devanie and Barry were eventually dropped, but over the years, Devanie became involved in incidents that would make him a candidate for an episode of Cops, rolling up repeated charges that cause him to be among the 17 officers in the state with four or more complaints — from lying to beating up suspects — with the FDLE.

In 2008, for instance, Joyce Brown complained that Devanie, whom she had been dating for a year, "follow[ed] her home... pulled off on the shoulder of the road... became very angry, and grabbed her by the back of her head and pulled her hair and kept calling her a bitch."

Devanie was accused of battery/domestic violence, but charges were dropped when Brown decided not to prosecute.

The next year, in 2009, Devanie was arrested and charged with domestic battery, according to FDLE records. The State Attorney's Office declined to pursue the charge, "citing that there is insufficient evidence to determine who the primary aggressor was in this incident," the narrative states. His FDLE file shows other charges, including a complaint of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

But "the investigation found there was insufficient evidence that Devanie conducted himself improperly or unprofessionally during these incidents," the file states.

Samuel Dread, meanwhile, who was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery before collapsing, is due for release in June 2017. Devanie's FDLE certificate is now clean.

The result of the dicey intersection of statute, cash, and legal inclination results in a reluctance to mete out justice to accused cops. State records show failed promises of termination for outlandish behavior (such as McNeil's pledge to dispatch Devanie) and a preponderance of law enforcement employees who rack up numerous offenses yet continue to draw taxpayer-funded paychecks.

Take, for instance, the case of David Woolverton, who was able to regain his job with the Lakeland Police Department after being fired for his role in a sex scandal at the department in 2013 in which several others were disciplined.

A clerical worker, Sue Eberle, announced she'd had sex with several members of the police department. A state investigation found that Eberle had been the instigator in most of those instances, and she was fired, as were two officers who had relations with her, including Woolverton. Six others resigned or retired as a result of the scandal.

Woolverton was making $76,505 a year when he was dumped. But after appealing his dismissal, he was ordered back to work with the force in September 2014 as "equipment manager" in the Special Operations Division, a position created for him. His salary was lowered to $65,847 with no allowance for overtime. The union and Woolverton appealed; he wanted that overtime.

Last July, Sarasota arbitrator Stanley Sergent ruled that Woolverton should be able to earn overtime and awarded the officer back pay for missed overtime.

Woolverton, his union, and the city agreed in September that he would get $9,689 in back pay for missed overtime and that he should be able to earn no less than 4.5 hours of overtime pay every 40-hour workweek.

Woolverton had run up other internal investigations in Lakeland. Records show that in 1998, he had an "inappropriate relationship" with a student from a business cooperative program who was working an internship with the department.

The incident was uncovered during a 2012 internal affairs investigation of Woolverton on an unrelated case. The records of the 1998 episode have since been destroyed.

Though Woolverton received a written reprimand for that incident and suffered the 2014 demotion, his FDLE license indicates he's had an unblemished record with the department since 1995.

Woolverton could not be reached for comment. Calls and emails to Nick Marolda, president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represented Woolverton, were not returned.

The Devanie and Woolverton cases are not isolated. The system designed to prevent police officers from abusing their positions regularly returns those accused of abuse to the street. Eventually, something will have to give, says law enforcement consultant Dan Libby, a former deputy for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office who served as chief of the Punta Gorda Police Department for seven years.

"It erodes the trust that the people have in their police, " Libby says. "I know that police chiefs and sheriffs don't want bad officers and deputies, but sometimes the system is so stacked against them that it is impossible to get rid of them."

Michael Florenco, the cop who allegedly rammed a Fort Lauderdale bar burglar and lied about it, was one of the hardest cops to get rid of. Hailing originally from Oyster Bay, New York, he moved to Florida as a kid and graduated in 1995 from East Bay High School outside Tampa. Then he got an associate's degree in criminal justice from Hillsborough County Community College and a bachelor's in criminology from the University of South Florida. By February 1999, he was an officer with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.

Over the years, he received commendations, including several for arrest volume by his unit.

Florenco did his street patrol time and moved into narcotics, working plainclothes. In early 2009, he reached the top with a promotion to sergeant with the Street Crimes Unit, a newly branded version of the Northwest Raiders, which was a unit dogged by scandal and carrying a reputation for heavy-handed policing of the drug trade.

The night of Kenneth Post's arrest at the Hilton, Florenco was behind the wheel of the unmarked Camry, trailing his suspect for five minutes in a car chase over a few bottles of liquor.

After the two cars collided, Florenco and the pair of detectives riding with him, Matthew Moceri and Geoffrey Shaffer, completed their reports. They all told the same story: After Post had faked a left turn to throw them off, the suspect had crashed into their car.

Post was not from a family you would expect to have a beef with the cops. They had moved to Fort Lauderdale from New Jersey in 1969. There were six of them: his dad — a construction worker — his mom, and four kids. Kenneth was 6.

At first, the family mostly prospered and loved Florida. His sister Janet became a certified public accountant and moved to Naples. Two other sisters married and moved around the state while Kenneth struggled with drugs and alcohol. He bounced in and out of prison and jail, staying in the Fort Lauderdale area.

After the crash with Florenco, Post's case dragged on. He skipped bail for a while; then, when he was apprehended, he filed a citizen complaint against the cops.

He alleged excessive force and claimed the officers had falsified an account of the evening he was arrested.

His family, in particular Janet, was supportive and helped foot the bill to urge the authorities to look into the behavior of the officers in the episode.

An investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the police department's internal affairs unit determined that the officers' account of the crash was false.

"Based on my review of the evidence, the damages to both vehicles could not have occurred as depicted in the charging documents, incident reports, and provided sworn testimony," concluded Donald Felicella, a former police officer who specialized in crash reconstruction.

Prosecutors alleged official misconduct, conspiracy to commit misconduct, perjury, and falsifying records. All three officers were arrested.

"These officers falsified their reports, and two of them lied about the incident in deposition to cover their violations," internal affairs officer Sgt. Randall Pelham wrote.

In February 2013, Post pleaded guilty to charges including burglary and resisting arrest and received three years in prison. The same week, a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision in the case of the three officers. The decision went to Broward Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato, a former Tallahassee police officer. She exonerated the officers. (Imperato herself later had problems with the law. She resigned from her position earlier this year in connection with a 2013 arrest for drunk driving.)

What didn't come out in the trial — in which the judge let Florenco walk — was that a few months after the Post car chase, Florenco ran into more trouble related to false reporting.

Shortly after noon August 24, 2010, Fort Lauderdale Police Dets. Brian Dodge and Billy Koepke sat in a parking lot, eyeballing the Wellness and Pain Centers of Broward on Federal Highway north of Commercial Boulevard.

The two officers were part of the street crimes unit, serving under Florenco. They were in a plain sedan in plainclothes working a tip on the clinic. Along came Mark Mayer, a 46-year-old with a sizable criminal history. He exited the clinic and hopped into a waiting car. While inside the pain center, he had been given a prescription for oxycodone and Xanax.

The officers followed the car to a house, where Mayer was taken down and threatened with a charge of doctor shopping, a felony.

The only way he could avoid the charge was to set up a cocaine buy, the cops told him.

They all returned to a Red Roof Inn in Oakland Park, where Mayer was staying with his girlfriend. A buy was arranged from a couple of veteran drug dealers the couple knew. They'd be there later in the afternoon.

Florenco, who supervised Dodge and Koepke, showed up at the Red Roof around 4:30 p.m., ready to help in the takedown. Florenco said Mayer should sit with him and another detective in his car and ID the guys bringing the drugs.

The dealers showed up an hour later and walked into the hotel lobby to check on a room. One of them remained inside to use the bathroom, while the other got back into the driver's seat. Florenco pulled up behind their car, blocking them in.

Both dealers were arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and trafficking.

The detectives wrote up their reports but never mentioned that Florenco was on the scene.

An internal affairs investigation also found that the report wrongly claimed that the suspect using the lobby bathroom when officers moved in was in the car when he was busted.

Mayer and his girlfriend sued the city, alleging civil rights violations and wrongful imprisonment. They had been held while officers made the bust.

Once again, a case Florenco was connected with had gone south.

An internal affairs inquiry faulted Florenco for failing to exert some simple authority, as he "failed to ask pertinent questions or get involved during his approximately two hours on the scene that could have prevented Mr. Mayer from being unlawfully detained."

The charges against the dealers were dropped in light of the erroneous police report.

Dodge and Koepke were arrested and charged with a number of offenses. Florenco was suspended with pay during an internal investigation. In court, Dodge and Koepke were found not guilty. Both were fired.

The two dealers also filed a federal lawsuit, which the city settled for undisclosed terms.

Even though Florenco wasn't charged criminally, the department was done with him. He was fired in November for failure to properly supervise the officers.

Florenco filed a lawsuit, represented by a police union lawyer, to get his job back. In early May, a judge dismissed his suit.

Post filed a federal lawsuit against Florenco, Moceri, Shaffer, and the City of Fort Lauderdale, alleging civil rights violations. The city settled the case last year, giving Post an undisclosed amount.

Post's sister, Janet Kelly, says the payout from the city "was nothing."

The Florenco tally: four lawsuits against the city, costly to defend. At the heart of all that expense was a supervising officer who benefited from a system geared to protect the inept along with the innocent.

Plus, there's a family that remains fearful of the police.

"We continue to fear that the officers at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department will retaliate against our family," says Kelly, declining to say where her brother, Kenneth Post, now lives. "And we realize that this can happen again. The system has not changed, and the chief didn't fire those officers."

In Florida, Cops Flout the Law and Continue Working
Illustration by Joseph Laney

Down on the street, they say the system must be fixed. Ali Abdul Muhammad, chair of the Tampa branch of the New Black Panther Party, is sure no one — not even the cops — wants a bad cop.

"Oh, yeah, they can fix it," he says. "There are ones who are very corrupt, but those practices aren't in line with the agency."

Muhammad, an earnest 27-year-old DJ whose given name is Clarence Jones, is an organizer of the Stop the Killing tour, an anti-violence crusade that aims to hit 37 U.S. cities in the coming months.

He's not against cops, but he knows the system keeps the bad ones in place. "We're not here to bash the police," he says. "But they are here for the people, and, really, they need to be policing themselves."

It's been a long process to get the police to realize there are ways to fix policing, he says. And there are still the beefs. "I get calls, still, false imprisonment, false charges."

Ask a representative of a police union his take on the system of policing the police, and you get a reasonable but political response.

"I have confidence in internal affairs," says Jack Lokeinsky, president of the Fort Lauderdale Fraternal Order of Police. "We don't always agree with the findings, but they are thorough. But we always need to know if there was a good reason for termination."

Lokeinsky has been the voice of police in Broward for more than a decade and, in so doing, has been front and center when officers are on the spot. When officers are fired, he's the one to announce an effort to have them reinstated, as he did with Florenco after the Post acquittals. He denounces judges he believes are anti-cop and sometimes defends what appears to be indefensible. He was forced to do that recently when four Fort Lauderdale cops were fired for sending racist texts.

"Everyone is entitled to due process," he announced as the case was being reviewed.

Lokeinsky added that law enforcement has been beset by a rash of bad publicity, and departments are hurting for recruits. "It's a noble profession, and in this current environment, every department is suffering from vacancies. The negative perception of police officers is unwarranted."

In Florida, the Officers' Bill of Rights has driven a wedge between law enforcement administrators and the rank-and-file, seemingly giving cops who want to hold onto their job nine lives.

"The Bill of Rights gives officers more rights than we have as citizens," concludes Carlos Miller, a Miami photographer who launched the blog Photography Is Not a Crime, which documents police abuse.

That statute is not going away anytime soon, he adds. "Politicians are afraid of cops; they want that support-ad backing of the unions," Miller says. "If they were to try to amend that Bill of Rights, they would get painted as being anti-cop, and no politician can stand that and win an election."

Adds state Sen. Dwight Bullard: "It is still this golden egg, the Bill of Rights. They can talk about body cams and other procedural things, but it would be very difficult to make changes to that statute. It's seen as this shield that officers need to do their job, or that is what becomes the conversation when it comes up."

Politicians don't much like talking about the Bill of Rights. New Times sent emails to five sitting state senators, two sitting representatives, and two former legislators, seeking an interview on the state's system of policing the police. Only Bullard responded.

In his lawsuit to retain his job, Michael Florenco accused the city of violating a provision of the Bill of Rights that limits a municipality or department to 180 days to investigate and notify an employee of recommended discipline.

His lawyer is Eugene Gibbons, a police union attorney and former police officer. Gibbons did not return a call for comment.

Florenco, who declined an interview request in light of his legal situation, is attending a PhD program in criminal justice at Nova Southeastern University. His thesis: prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption in investigations.

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