Florida Police Department focuses on Settlements instead of Better Training
Ongoing training is a necessity for most major corporations; however, it tends to be overlooked when it comes to police officers in this country. Or at least the type of training that teaches officers to de-escalate interactions rather than escalate them which appears to be the current trend in training.
That results in cities and towns throughout the United States dishing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements with no end in sight because the officers are not being disciplined nor trained to avoid lawsuits.
A good example is the city of Fort Myers in Florida, a mid-size city with population of less than 80,000 people, that was ranked by U.S. News at the #1 place to retire as well as the #35 best place to live out of 125 cities ranked.
Fort Myers is not the city one thinks about when it comes to police abuse because that tends to be overshadowed by larger departments in larger cities but the city has spent more than a million dollars in police misconduct settlements over the last 20 years in cases related to the city's police department. The settlements have been granted to both citizens as well as officers.
Waffle House Settlement
The most recent settlement that was just approved for $150,000 involving two women who claimed they were wrongfully arrested in January 2017 at a Waffle House.
Officers were called due to a disturbance at 2:00 a.m. when the business had about 20 people eating at the time.
Officers responded and were able to deescalate the situation, at first, with the help of the two women that sued the department.
Sgt. Joshua Steinman later arrived on scene screaming and cursing and arrested one of the women who helped officers. A witness tried telling the officer that he was arresting the wrong person, and the same officer arrested him for disturbing the peace.
The officer was reprimanded, but still on the force.
Officers showed up to a 7-11 saying that they received a call for a disruptive drunk, but the bodycam footage debunked both claims. Holley Denton Jones was in the process of making a purchase when officers Christopher Roble and James Barlow tried to force Jones outside. The officers quickly escalated the situation and used their taser on him.
Settlements involving Minority Officers
Former detective Audenia Nicole Thomas filed a lawsuit against Fort Myers Police Department for racial, gender and retaliatory discrimination in 2013. Thomas claims that between 2006 and 2013, she was passed over for a promotion, harassed and retaliated against for complaining about biased officers within the department.
After two years, neither side would admit fault but City Council decided it was in the best interest of the city to put it behind them and agreed to pay $300,000, according to the lawsuit.
“We will spend more money pursuing this than what we will get paid,” City Attorney Grant Alley said.
Thomas was put on paid leave until the lawsuit ended and agreed to resign once completed and to never work for the city again.
According to News-Press:
“Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, a retired FMPD officer, testified under oath that officers are encouraged to target minorities in the community, pull them over and “abuse” search-and-seizure laws to make arrests, according to transcripts of his deposition in the Thomas lawsuit.”
In total, the city has paid out over $420,000 to officers.
Lawsuits Against Lt. William Musant
Since 2000, there has been five lawsuits involving former Lt. William Musant. Three of the lawsuits have been settled. One of the three cost tax-payers $300,000, according to WINK News.
The latest lawsuit was filed in October 2019 by, Suzette Scott-Warren, a former records clerk. She was fired in May 2019 after working for the department for four years. According to the lawsuit, Scott-Warren believes her firing was in retaliation to a sexual harassment complaint that she made against Musante.
Community advocate Anthony Thomas, who has been calling for the department to be dissembled, says that Musante still being on the force is a disgrace.
“He has animus towards women, and he has animus toward people of color; his record shows that. How many times can you give this man, a second, third, fourth chance? How much damage does he have to do?”
Pendergrass also testified in the Thomas case that Musante was abusive towards minorities and unequally applied search and seizure laws against them.
When a falsified complaint was submitted to the Department of Justice, Musant got the attention of their Civil Rights Division.
Numerous allegations have been filed against Musant for racial discrimination, retaliation, and creating a hostile working environment, but Internal Affairs cleared Musant each time.
Former Officer Jean Beaubrun, who is Haitian, filed a lawsuit against the department in March 2000, after confronting Officer Mike Masiero in regards to his derogatory racial remarks to bystanders and victims on multiple occasions. He was later transferred under Musant.
"We got him now ... there is no way he will become an officer now,” the two officers were overheard saying, according to the lawsuit. Beaubrun was terminated shortly after.
Both parties settled with no money listed.
SWAT officer Pedro Soto scored third highest on an exam for the department’s sergeant positions. He was assured the position, but fabricated reports ruined his chance. Soto made a complaint and was shortly terminated after. Soto filed a lawsuit and settled in July 2001 for $65,000 paid to Soto, $55,000 was paid in attorney fees and he was reinstated.
Musant has been with the department since 1994, according to News-Press; the Fort Myers Police Departments website shows Musant is still employed. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2008 and has maintained the same position within the department.
NFL player Nate Allen
Philadelphia Eagles safety Nate Allen was arrested in February 2015, after a tip from a 16-year-old was submitted that he was exposing himself. After an investigation, it was determined the tip was false and he was later released. The case involved a cover-up which resulted in Police Chief Doug Baker being terminated. Allen filed a lawsuit against the department and settled for $440,000.
Equal Opportunity Training
In the last 20 years, Fort Myers Police Department has had five police chiefs: Derrick Diggs, Dennis Eads, Doug Baker, Hilton Daniels, Larry Hart. According to a 2016 report, there were 103 white police officers, 13 black and 24 Hispanic that year.
Rather than the money being spent on countless settlements, if Fort Myers Police Department provided better racial diversity training, it could possibly save the city money that could be spent on hiring more officers as well as other necessities.