Fort Lauderdale’s interim police chief vows to change culture, build trust
Fort Lauderdale’s interim police chief vows to change culture, build trust
Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Karen Dietrich on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. City Manager Chris Lagerbloom asked Dietrich to lead the department after he removed Rick Maglione as chief.

Susannah Bryan
Sun Sentinel

It looked like a video game, playing for all the world to see. Only it was real.

“Pop his ass!” one cop yelled. “Get that, motherf—er!” whooped another.

Those animated shouts from officers firing rubber bullets into a crowd of protesters on May 31 were captured on police bodycam footage. So were their laughs.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department is now in search of a new leader who will transform the culture of an agency long criticized for insensitivity to simmering racial tensions.

Interim Chief Karen Dietrich, a no-nonsense cop whose late father was a retired Miami police captain, says she’s the woman for the job.

But the 30-year veteran likely will have competition.

“I know there’s a great deal of talent both within the department and outside,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “It’s going to be a complicated task, but I’m sure we’ll find the right person to lead the department.”

Fort Lauderdale is casting a wide net, embarking on a nationwide search to find a strong leader to oversee the agency’s 530 sworn officers and 179 civilians at a time when police departments nationwide are under intense scrutiny.

‘Under the microscope’

Commissioner Robert McKinzie, Fort Lauderdale’s only Black commissioner, says he prefers going with an outsider. The decision will be made by City Manager Chris Lagerbloom, not the commission.

“Now we are under the microscope,” McKinzie said. “We need to make changes to bring accountability and transparency to the department. I’m not going to hold my tongue until we get what the public is a calling out for, justice for all.”

Like in other cities across the nation, protesters took to the streets of Fort Lauderdale after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis. Both city leaders and residents were horrified by the violent and chaotic scene that played out that day in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Fort Lauderdale police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Police said protesters started it all when they threw rocks, bricks and commercial grade fireworks.

“It was not a good day in our city’s history,” Vice Mayor Steve Glassman said. “That was a horror show. It was a horrific day. Hard to watch. The changes we are seeing now are a direct result of that day.”

Christina Currie, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and resident who leads the citizens police review board, was alarmed by the bodycam footage.

“I thought it reeked of unprofessionalism,” Currie said. “It’s not a frat house. You shouldn’t look like you’re out of control when you’re in a position of power. That was alarming to me. That’s not OK.”

Dietrich defended the police response that day.

“You can take my streets,” she said. “You can take my sidewalks. We will protect your right to talk. But the moment you try to light my officers on fire, that changes the dynamic.”

Cameras don’t blink

Yet she also says she thinks the department needs to evolve with the times. And that means training officers to remain professional even in the most intense of situations.

“We now have body cameras,” Dietrich said. “That body camera doesn’t blink. We have conversations. And now those conversations are being captured. That’s the reality.”

By the nature of the job, police officers are forced to see horrific things, Dietrich said.

“We’re human,” she said. “We get upset. We’re just like everybody else. But people think when we put on this uniform, we lose all emotion. And we don’t.”

The agency is now reviewing the officers’ actions during the May 31 protest to ensure there were no violations of department policy.

As chief, Rick Maglione defended his cops, saying they showed great restraint that day. On July Fourth, he posted a public statement hailing his officers as heroes and vilifying the protesters.

Five days later, he was chief no more.

“It was that statement on July Fourth that sealed his fate,” McKinzie said.

Demoted to the rank of major, Maglione is now assigned to the investigations bureau and earning a lower salary to match his new rank: $177,176.

As interim chief, Dietrich is now making $191,592.

She’s already decorated her second-floor office, trying to make it “homey.” A photo of her two sons, now 17 and 19, hangs from the wall and a pretty orchid sits in the corner.

Dietrich’s husband and sister-in-law both work at the department. To avoid any appearance of nepotism, Dietrich says she plans to recuse herself should anything come up regarding promotions or other decisions that involve them.

At one point, Dietrich teared up talking about her late father, who died nine weeks ago. He would have been “over the top” proud of her for taking the helm as chief, she says.

“He would be super excited,” she said. “And I have to believe that he has something to do with me sitting here right now. Never did I expect, never did I dream I would be sitting in this chair. I walked these halls since I was 21 years old. It’s a dream come true.”

A straight shooter

Dietrich says she expects her staff to work hard every single day — and some might not like her for that.

“The bottom line is everybody knows I’m a straight shooter and I hold people accountable,” she said. “And sometimes when you hold people accountable, that’s uncomfortable. If you don’t do your job right and you don’t do it well and you’re going to sit under a shade tree, you’re not going to like me much. Because I’m going to be all over you.”

Commissioner Ben Sorensen says he supports Lagerbloom’s decision to name Dietrich as interim chief, but wants to look both inside and outside to get the best candidate.

“It might be someone from Alaska or down the street,” Sorensen said. “We need someone who is dynamic and can make changes as needed. And I don’t know what those changes are yet.”

One policy change has already been made, even before Dietrich took over as interim chief.

Prior to the May 31 protest, supervisors reviewed bodycam footage only if there was an excessive force complaint or an investigator deemed it necessary based on something odd in the officer’s written report.

Fort Lauderdale now plans to hire an outside consultant to work with the city’s citizen police review board to examine the department’s policies and determine which ones need changing.

Sorensen says he expects to see their recommendations in six to eight months.

Weed out bad cops

The mayor says he wants to see officers undergo in-depth sensitivity training. He also wants the chief to look into new ways of handling crowds and protests.

Perhaps officers need to give warnings, when possible, before firing tear gas and rubber bullets, Trantalis said.

“What we saw in these videos were people leaving the scene and they shot at them anyway,” he said. “That video [from the May 31 protest] makes it seem like our police officers are on the attack. The role of the department is to defuse situations, not antagonize people. We need to get away from the warfare mentality in our department.”

McKinzie agrees, saying policing needs to change from top to bottom.

“We have to figure out how to weed out the bad cops,” he said. “If you don’t change the culture … race is why we’re here. We now have a police department that is broken. People have got to be willing to accept change.”

As interim chief, Dietrich says she intends to lead the way for that change. But any detailed plan is still months away.

“We’re going to be fair, we’re going to be impartial and we’re going to be transparent,” she said. “We’re going to make mistakes. We’re humans. We’re not robots. But when we make a mistake, we’re going to admit we made a mistake. We’re going to fix it, we’re going to retrain and we’re going to move forward.”

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