Chief Derrick Diggs inherited a police department burdened with its past. He took over in 2016 while the department was under audit from the Freeh Group. The report found the department faced poor leadership, unfair discipline internally and an overall lack of trust in the community. In the last two years, he’s made progress (he says the department has accomplished 90 percent of the recommendations in the Freeh report), but history still looms. Internal investigations continue, including one in which two officers have remained on paid leave for more than two years. A high-ranking officer was suspended last winter, accused of sexual misconduct during a prostitution sting in 2013.
Diggs takes a look back at his time in office and looks forward to what he anticipates will be better days for the Fort Myers Police Department.
There’s been a decrease in violent crime since you’ve arrived. How much of that is something the police have engaged in? And how much of that are things that are outside of your control?
For the second year in a row, we have a reduction in violent crime and knock on wood, the first quarter in the third year, is really low. When I first got down here, we had a strong focus on violent crime. We had too much violence for a city for the size of Fort Myers. We even have a stronger focus on reducing violent crime; we’re more aggressive, we’re more focused to engage those trigger-pullers who are responsible for the majority of violence in this community.
On the other hand, we’re doing other things out there, so that the individuals that don’t need to go to jail, the individuals who are not causing the violence but are maybe on the periphery, we are doing the things to try to work with those individuals, to keep them away from the criminal justice system—whether that’s keep them in school or find them jobs or help them in other aspects of their daily lives.
We work with our community leaders and our faith-based leaders, and get those individuals in a situation where they can turn their lives around. I call it giving them a pathway out of that lifestyle because we have to work with them to get them trained, to get them support, to get them help with substance abuse or mental health issues perhaps, and get them whole bunch of other things before they can get that job or degree. We’re focusing on putting the people that we need to remove from the community out of the community and then we work with other individuals to turn their lives around.
Looking back over your time here, is there anything you would think you should have done differently?
One of the things that I don’t know if I could have done it better not, but the relationship between the department and certain communities was damaged. It was very, very serious. I didn’t know how deep it really went. And I’m not sure if I was able to figure that out.
Certain individuals in the community basically indicated to me that some of the barriers and obstacles and the lack of trust has existed for more than 40 years. I will tell you that I’m not where I wish we were at. We’re not where we need to be. But I do know that we’re working very hard to overcome those barriers. It’s just going to take time.
What are some of the things you can do to build trust with those communities?
I can’t tell you all the things we’ve done but will give this snapshot of some of the positive things we’re doing. We started police athletic leagues. When I got down here, very little was done in that area, but this is something I believe in. We have a basketball program that has about 180 kids now. We have a football program. That’s probably one of the best police league football programs in the state—if not the country—[with] over 200 kids. We don’t forget about the girls, either. So we have about 30 girls in our cheer program. And our signature program is our boxing program. That’s the one we really connect on because there are things that we can do with boxing that bring out the discipline and structure. We have about 25 to 30 young men in that program. Those kids are doing so well. If I send them out to a tournament, they’re coming back with trophies. I’m very proud. You got to remember most of these kids are from our marginal communities. We work hard and make sure that we participate in their lives by giving them structure and guidance, so that they can go on and stay in school and become productive citizens in this community.
Internally, how have you addressed the trust issue?
We’re going to have to continue working on building trust. One of the trainings that we do is called “fair and impartial policing.” What we do is bring our officers in and talk about things like implicit bias and explicit bias and get them to understand how you have to talk to folks and show the courtesy and respect in dealing with people in marginal communities. We even brought in our political leaders, city leaders, community leaders along with our officers to train together for two-and-a-half days. We received positive responses from those leaders because it helped [police] understand what they have to go through in their day-to-day duties in dealing with people in those communities.
We also brought in some consultants to work with me and within the community. We started doing things like restorative justice practices, which is a practice where individuals who previously caused harm in the community are given an opportunity to restore their faith and their ability to work in the community.
Now, when you took over, the department was understaffed due to cuts that were made during the recession. Have you been able to get close to a place you feel like you’re fully staffed?
We’re not close to that place. One of the things we did was work with the University of Cincinnati and conducted a staffing analysis. That analysis indicated that we were about 60 officers short. Since, we’ve streamlined and improved our hiring practices. We have more candidates coming in. So in 2018, we hired 42 new police recruits—a very diverse group, they come from all over. And what’s nice about it is that they all want to be police officers in the City of Fort Myers.
There are several investigations that are going on into the department. I know you’re not at liberty to discuss those in detail, but I think a lot of people want to know what is happening and why these are taking so long. What can you say about how these investigations have been handled so far?
I demand that our officers conduct themselves and professional, courteous, and responsible manner. We take all our complaints, even anonymous complaints, very seriously. When it’s found out that officers’ actions are inappropriate, we take the appropriate action.
Some of those complaints may take longer than others. We make sure those investigations are conducted thoroughly. We address those very seriously because the integrity of our officers and integrity of this police department is primary.