Thursday, January 27, 2005
FDLE JOINS INQUIRY OF DETECTIVES; AGENTS TO INVESTIGATE DOZENS OF DEPUTIES
By Paula McMahon Staff Writer Staff Writer Shannon O'Boye contributed to this report.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is joining the investigation of Broward Sheriff's Office detectives suspected of falsifying crime reports, prosecutors confirmed Wednesday. State Attorney Mike Satz asked a team of criminal investigators from the statewide police agency to join his year-long inquiry into allegations of misconduct by detectives. Sheriff Ken Jenne has acknowledged there was a systemic problem with how his agency cleared cases.
Prosecutors recently filed criminal charges against two deputies who are charged with falsifying documents and making up confessions to clear cases in Weston and Southwest Ranches. Dozens more deputies have been informed that they are under investigation or have been asked to give statements to prosecutors.
The FDLE team will help prosecutors with the workload of false-confession cases, which has turned out to be more time-consuming than anticipated, said Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for Satz.
"Everyone -- our office, the Sheriff's Office, the deputies -- wants these investigations to be completed as quickly and, of course, as thoroughly as possible," Ishoy said. "It became clear that more manpower would be beneficial to the investigation."
FDLE conducts criminal investigations but also has the power to revoke law enforcement officers' certification if investigators find evidence of police misconduct. The agency has considerable influence over whether officers who are accused of wrongdoing get to continue to work in law enforcement.
Jenne last year brought in FDLE's crime statistics experts, who specialize in audits and not criminal investigations, to examine how his department was reporting and classifying crimes. That review found no serious problems.
The agents brought in by Satz are from FDLE's law enforcement offices and are experienced criminal investigators already based in South Florida.
An FDLE spokeswoman, Paige Patterson-Hughes, said she did not know how many agents will be involved. Ishoy would only say that "several" FDLE agents will be assigned.
At least five prosecutors and five state attorney's investigators have worked on the cases.
Jenne's spokeswoman, Cheryl Stopnick, said the sheriff had no comment on FDLE joining the investigation.
Stopnick said that prosecutors have pulled copies of more than 10,000 cases that were exceptionally cleared by detectives since 2000. An exceptional clearance is when detectives classify a case as being "solved" without making an arrest. Federal and state rules require detectives to use the classification sparingly, such as when a suspect dies or a victim refuses to cooperate. But a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation, published in November, found systemic problems and showed that detectives throughout the Sheriff's Office routinely used the classification, inflating the number of crimes the agency claimed to have solved.
For years, the Sheriff's Office reported crime clearance rates that were two and three times better than the national average. Since the prosecutors' investigation began in late 2003, those rates have plummeted. At the same time, the number of reported crimes has sharply increased in many of the agency's districts.
Christian Zapata, 35, and Christopher Thieman, 43, worked as detectives in the Weston/Southwest Ranches district until last month, when they were arrested and later suspended with pay. In their absence, they were transferred out of the detective bureau, along with 27 other detectives and sergeants who the Sheriff's Office has acknowledged are under investigation. Those deputies who are still working have been transferred to road patrol and other duties.
In court documents, prosecutors said Zapata and Thieman falsified reports.
Zapata is charged with 14 felony counts of official misconduct. In one case, he said a 14-year-old boy confessed to stealing more than two dozen trees that weighed 450 pounds each. He said the same teen confessed to stealing a winch that its owner had already recovered from a young neighbor.
Thieman is charged with eight felony counts of official misconduct. Thieman wrote reports claiming that a suspect drove around with him pointing out the scenes of crimes, but Thieman was not working that day. Another detective reluctantly gave a statement saying that Thieman never interviewed the suspect on that day.
Staff Writer Shannon O'Boye contributed to this report.
Paula McMahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4533.
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