The Orlando Police Department, the subject of police brutality lawsuits and criticism that its officers use force too often, has begun implementing a series of reforms.
Police Chief John Mina issued a departmentwide directive, telling officers to use “only the minimal amount of force necessary.” In addition, if they see another officer using too much force, Mina has ordered them to step in and stop it, then report it.
“As officers we have an obligation to protect the public and other officers,” Mina wrote in the directive. The chief told the Sentinel about it on Tuesday.
In November, the Orlando Sentinel published the results of a 10-month investigation that found Orlando officers used force on 3,100 people, causing 1,900 injuries, from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2014.
Orlando officers used force in 5.6 percent of their arrests during that period, more than double the rate of some other agencies, the Sentinel found. Its analysis was based on the number of arrests OPD reported to the FBI. OPD disputes the Sentinel’s findings, saying it made more arrests than it reported to the FBI and thus its officers used force in a smaller percentage of cases – 3.5 percent.
Byron Brooks, the city’s chief administrative officer, on Tuesday said the Sentinel investigation had an impact on the department assessment that he, Mina and other city staffers conducted.
“From areas that you either questioned or looked at … we recognized that we had a responsibility to look at as well,” he said.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer had ordered an assessment one year ago. In September, Brooks said it would be finished in a few weeks.
Brooks and Mina produced it Jan. 26, the same week Mina issued the new directive, requiring officers to use a minimum of force.
The department has made other changes, as well. It has made a greater commitment to train officers in how to de-escalate conflicts, Mina said. It also has begun to shift some officers involved in force incidents out of high-stress assignments.
One is Phillip “Chase” Fugate, 31, who went on trial in October, charged with two counts of battery for punching a handcuffed suspect.
He was acquitted by an Orange County jury but was transferred from a tactical unit, a SWAT-like team that focuses on guns and drugs, to the squad at Orlando International Airport, one that Mina, in the past, has said makes few arrests.
“I put him there,” Mina said Tuesday.
In its investigation, the Sentinel found that the city or its insurer paid $3.6 million to resolve excessive-force lawsuits or claims from 2010 through the end of 2014, more than three times the amount paid by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which has twice as many officers.
Local civil rights leaders have long criticized the department, accusing it of allowing officers to use too much force.
The Sentinel found that the number of times the OPD officers have used force is on the decline. Last year, it totaled 515, down 16 percent from the year before. It’s dropped 30 percent since 2012.
The Sentinel found that a small number of Orlando officers – 29 – accounted for one out of every four instances of force from 2010 through the end of 2014. Those officers used force 1,100 times in incidents that injured nearly 700 people during that period.
Brooks said he and city officials analyzed which officers were named in lawsuits most often and found they tended to be on specific beats and shifts. Many worked weekend nights downtown and in entertainment areas.
Some of them have shifted out of high-stress assignments, Mina said Tuesday. All but one veteran officer made the change voluntarily, the department reported.
David Cruz, an officer captured on video kicking a nightclub customer sitting on an Orange Avenue curb at least six times on June 4 following an altercation downtown, voluntarily moved to the International Drive bicycle unit, the department reported.
Charles Mays, the other officer involved in that incident, has left the department, Mina said.
Both officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
Some of the transfers were related to the department’s long-standing “Early Intervention Program,” which identifies officers who use force five times in three months or 12 times in a year.
When that happens, his manager sits down with the officer, trying to find out whether there are problems at home, with alcohol or other substances or other stressors.
“OPD has a responsibility to its employees and the community to identify and assist employees who show symptoms of job stress or personal problem,” the Community Policing Assessment report read. “Such symptoms may be exhibited in on-the-job performance behavior that results in complaints from citizens or may be indicated in the frequency of response to resistance incidents.”
The Sentinel found a dozen cases in which an officer should have been in the program but was not. The department blamed a computer glitch that it said is now fixed.
“One of the things that we noticed is early intervention can be helpful to our officers,” Mina said. “We want to have that extra check and balance.”
Said Brooks, “For me what this review or assessment … clearly revealed is that for the most part the city of Orlando had in place established policies, procedures, activities, programs that folks said, ‘This represents the best,'” said Brooks. “What you’ve seen out of this: If there is an area that we determined there may be a gap and we can improve, we acted on it.”
Mina said the department is enhancing its de-escalation training. It is shopping for a computer simulator, one in which officers would be surrounded by three screens and would play out potential use of force scenarios.
“They will have feedback on effective communication and de-escalation tactics,” Mina said.
Some scenarios will include how to deal with people under the influence of alcohol. The “vast majority” of those situations happen downtown – where a third of all use of force incidents occur – and Universal CityWalk.
It’s expected to cost from $150,000 to $200,000 and would be paid for from drug seizure money, Mina said.
It will be put in the department’s new training facility, which should open in 2017.
“This is a continuing process,” Mina said.
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