In a deepening scandal over racist texts and a video shared by former Fort Lauderdale police officers, the Broward Public Defender said he would seek the dismissal of at least 56 pending criminal cases in which four officers were involved. “If the State Attorney is interested in racial harmony, he will dismiss these cases,” Howard Finkelstein said Monday of the cases involving the arrests since Jan. 1, 2014 of black and other minority suspects. Another 126 closed cases involving three fired officers, along with a fourth who resigned, should also be reviewed for racial bias, Finkelstein said.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office said the review was already underway. “We are in the process of reviewing these cases to determine the specific roles of these former officers,” a spokesman for State Attorney Michael J. Satz said in an email. “Depending on the facts, cases may indeed have to be dismissed as a result of their gross misconduct.”
Finkelstein said he would send the results of his review to the U.S. Department of Justice, to Satz’s office and to the Fort Lauderdale police. “It’s a lot of work,” said Finkelstein. “Clearly these officers may have had different standards and approaches when they interacted with poor and minority individuals.” Police Chief Frank Adderley and city Mayor Jack Seiler last week announced the firing of three police officers over racial slurs used in text messages and a mock movie trailer.
A fourth police officer, who created the video titled “The Hoods,” resigned before the completion of the five-month Internal Affairs investigation, authorities said. The FBI’s civil rights division was to meet this week with Fort Lauderdale police officials to discuss “what [the officers’] activity has been since they’ve been on our department,” Adderley, who is black, said on “Facing South Florida” on Sunday morning. “We welcome the FBI to come in.”
The firing of the three officers will also be discussed at next Monday’s meeting of the Citizens Police Review Board, which serves as an advisory panel to the city manager. The board can take testimony and public comment. Finkelstein said that while Adderley “did the right thing” in ridding the department of the four officers, more questions remain. “Was this just four guys yukking it up with inappropriate racial humor, or does this expose a dark, beating racial heart within the Fort Lauderdale Police Department?”
The officers fired were James Wells, 30; Jason Holding, 31; and Christopher Sousa, 25. Officer Alex Alvarez, 22, resigned in late January before the investigation was completed. Police officials said that if Alvarez had not resigned, he would’ve been fired. Officials say Alvarez created the mock movie trailer that included scenes of a Ku Klux Klan member, a doctored image of President Barack Obama with gold teeth and another image depicting what appears to be a police dog attacking a black man.
The scandal erupted after Alvarez’s ex-fiancee in October 2014 sent Adderley a series of emails containing screen shots and text messages exchanged among the four officers. In addition to derogatory references to African-Americans, the officers’ comments also disparaged Hispanics, gays and co-workers, according to an internal affairs report released by police.
“Anytime you have people with authority such as police officers expressing [racist] comments, it’s a problem,” said Ken Hassett, past president of the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Hassett said before the group’s next monthly meeting, he planned to email members “asking them if they have any cases they are aware of where the actions of the officers would have any effect on a client’s results.”
Rosalind Osgood, a member of the Broward school board and chaplain for the police department, said that “as an African-American, I was very offended” by the views the officers expressed. “This is a diverse county, and we’re not going to tolerate racist prejudice against others,” she said.
However, Osgood said she did not think the four former officers reflected “the spirit and heart of the police department. “I think there may be some others [who are racist], but that is not the overall disposition of the department,” she said. “Ten or 20 years ago I would have agreed that the culture of the department is racist,” Osgood said. “But I think the department is moving in the right direction.”