Outside audit slams Hollywood Police Department over way it handles use-of-force cases

In one incident, a Hollywood K-9 officer tried to stop a bicyclist because he was riding without a light. When the bicyclist refused to stop, the officer grabbed at the man's shirt, then fired his Taser to no effect, the audit says. (Sun Sentinel, file)

A damning audit of the Hollywood Police Department calls for sweeping changes to the way the agency handles incidents involving use of force, saying those cases have been significantly underreported.

The audit, conducted by an outside consulting firm at the request of the police chief, includes 18 recommendations designed to bring transparency to the troubled agency.

Chief Frank Fernandez promised to turn the department around after being named Hollywood's top cop in mid-August.


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"This is part of the chief coming in and wanting to look at all processes and procedures and gain input from employees and officers that have been working for the department for a number of years," city spokeswoman Raelin Storey said. "The goal is to be one of the best police departments in the country. And to do that we need to look critically at the department and how we do things."

The audit says the department's police reports concerning use of force are incomplete, lack clarity and do not provide an accurate picture of events, making it difficult for supervisors to determine whether an officer's actions were justifiable.

In many cases, supervisors are trying to figure out what happened based on a scanty police report, since they typically are not called to the scene, the consultants found.

"Supervisors told us that if someone is punched in the face by an officer and there is no injury, there would be no use of force investigation because there is no injury," Illinois-based consultant Charles Gruber wrote in his report. "This would cause a significant under reporting of use of force."

Police agencies set guidelines on how much force their officers may use in any given situation, escalating from verbal commands to physical takedowns, the use of pepper spray and Tasers and, finally, lethal force. The Hollywood Police Department fails to make clear to its officers that force should not be used as a means of punishment or interrogation and also fails to say that excessive force is not tolerable within the agency, Gruber wrote.

One interview revealed that a supervisor is sometimes not notified for hours or even days that a use-of-force incident even occurred, let alone needed investigation, Gruber wrote. Another supervisor said the department would investigate a use-of-force incident only if there was a weapon, injury or complaint.

In one incident, a Hollywood K-9 officer tried to stop a bicyclist because he was riding without a light.

When the bicyclist refused to stop, the officer grabbed at the man's shirt, then fired his Taser to no effect, the audit says. The bicyclist hid from the officer. When he wouldn't come out of hiding, the cop released his dog, which bit the bicyclist. The case should have been referred to Internal Affairs, Gruber wrote.

"The case is more troubling as the amount of force used in a non-custodial misdemeanor incident that appears to be excessive," Gruber wrote. "There was no Taser download, no collection of evidence, no witness statements and no witness canvass. There is no indication the officer was ever interviewed."

As a consultant for the U.S. Justice Department, Gruber investigates allegations of police misconduct for the federal government and recommends ways to reduce excessive force complaints and other civil rights violations.

Gruber and his team of consultants interviewed command staff, supervisors, officers and community leaders but did not name any of them in the report. The consultants also reviewed use of force incident reports and citizen complaints from 2012 and 2013.

Gruber, a former police chief, referred all questions to City Hall on Tuesday.

Police union leader Jeff Marano said he had not yet read the 20-page report, but questioned the findings of what he called a "hired gun" intent on finding fault with the department.

Wayne Koppel, an attorney whose client recently won a $195,000 settlement against the city in a false-arrest case, was not surprised by the blistering critique.

His client was arrested and beaten so badly that he needed surgery to have a metal plate implanted under his left eye.

"He looked like he'd just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson," Koppel said.

The department ruled the use of force was justified.