Booed, hissed at and harassed: Veteran targeted for speaking out against Marco police
Alex Popoff stood unafraid as an army of one at the Marco Island City Council podium.
A disabled veteran medically retired from the U.S. Air Force, Popoff was the lone resident to speak out Monday against the Marco Island Police Department and support City Manager David Harden’s decision to seek new leadership at the helm.
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Booed, hissed at, insulted and harassed, Popoff has vowed not to give up the liberties he fought for during his time in the military.
Raised on Marco between 1999 and 2012, Popoff’s military career ended in late 2017 after two failed surgeries for his back, which was injured in training and as a first responder, as well as anxiety and depression that occurred when he was injured again.
Ahead of what was expected to be a contentious meeting as a throng of residents openly protested the previously announced departure of Police Chief Al Schettino, Council Chairman Erik Brechtnitz called for the crowd to remain civil and respectful.
Popoff and his service to his country, which includes numerous medals, received anything but that as he recapped what he called Schettino’s “dedicated track record to untruthfulness, corruption and looking the other way in the presence of issues.”
Citing news stories supported by official public records, he rattled them off one after another.
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Abuse of force, sex on duty, selective enforcement, placing a 'Brady Cop on patrol, special treatment and the list went on.
Popoff’s words incited the crowd when he questioned the police department’s track record for safety given some officers involved in the department’s sex on duty scandal either had or were later promoted to supervisory positions.
“When people say they are comfortable with their children on Marco Island, I ask them, ‘You’re right. No one is going to rape them except the police department themselves,” Popoff said.
As the crowd booed and shouted over him, he talked louder.
After a brief calm, the crowd started again, interrupting Popoff at multiple junctures as he tried to ask how Schettino’s supporters could attempt to rationalize or blindly ignore each incident.
One woman said, “So what?”, after Popoff explained he left Marco Island to start his military service, which also included time as a military police officer. His response: “Thank you.”
Popoff remained defiant, raising his voice again so that his words could be heard over the heckling.
“We have the right to voice our opinions without the fear of being targeted,” Popoff said as a woman screams ‘red light’ to signal the end of his allotted speaking time. “The only targeting I’ve seen tonight is against me and anyone else that’s said one thing you people disagree with.”
Difficult to believe, watch the video as the jeering followed Popoff out right into the parking lot. Tens of thousands of people already have not to mention the 1,600-plus who viewed a video Popoff shot where one man affiliated with a Catholic church on the island stuck out both middle fingers as others laughed and booed in Popoff’s direction as he left Council Chambers.
Popoff may have appeared alone in that moment but his words and the actions of his detractors only buoyed support for him from councilors and veterans as the harassment continued the following day.
Abhorred by what he had witnessed, Councilor Sam Young called Popoff the next day to apologize.
“I was just disgusted by how he was treated,” Young said. “I felt I had to do something.”
Young then emailed Harden to tell him that he had offered an apology for the treatment by “the mob” and said it wouldn’t hurt if other councilors did the same.
Later that day, things continued to get worse.
Popoff’s father, Rob, who previously served on City Council and was recovering at home from a bad accident, informed Councilor Jared Grifoni after midnight Wednesday via text message and phone that he was awakened by calls from police supporters. He would later send an email to the entire council to lament the lack of safety provided for his son at the meeting and said he held the city responsible for his well-being.
“Unfortunately, Marco Island City Council meetings have historically been a shameful place filled will a mob mentality lacking any civil discourse,” Rob Popoff wrote. “Leading the pack was the (chief’s wife, Carol Schettino), disrespecting Alex and publicly denouncing him.”
During and after Alex Popoff spoke, Carol Schettino referred to him as “angry” and a “troll.”
Incensed by what he witnessed at the meeting and had transpired later, Grifoni emailed Harden and City Attorney Alan Gabriel moments later to state that the City Council needed to address this immediately in cooperation with them.
“Alex was shouted down by the crowd and cell phone video appears to show him being subject to vulgar gestures and other harassment,” Grifoni wrote. “All of this occurred without any assistance from on duty officers to deescalate the situation and secure this individual's right to speak freely and without fear, and to enter and exit our meeting unaccosted.
“Do we seriously wonder why citizens are afraid to come speak out on this issue for fear of targeting and harassment? In fact, I wonder if it's not just citizens who are intimidated.”
The elder Popoff also called into question Brechnitz’s decision not to throw hecklers out of the meeting and Schettino sitting silently considering what had taken place.
“Ironic that the chief (the Sargent at Arms) sat silent as Alex was being abused,” Popoff wrote. “Selective enforcement seems to be a pattern for this chief!”
In her response to him, Councilor Charlette Roman, a fellow veteran, agreed.
“The attack on your son's military service was inexcusable,” Roman said. “I was also disturbed by the complete lack of civility and decorum by most members of the audience. I agree that the chairman should have done more to address the behavior; unfortunately, he did not.”
Brechnitz said while he interrupted Alex on multiple occasions to restore order, Alex’s decision to turn to the crowd inflamed the situation as he disagreed with the assessment in a response to Rob Popoff, leading to more disagreement.
“He wasn’t given a chance to speak while the chief’s wife was given a pathetic 13 minutes,” Popoff wrote. “He couldn’t get a single point across because you didn’t maintain order. I would not have taken this tone with you, but you have the audacity to suggest, 'Alex made mistakes!' How would you have handled yourself in front of that mob?”
True to his words, Alex Popoff has begun the process of obtaining restraining orders against the people targeting him and his family as he visited the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Wednesday.
In stating Marco Island’s environment does not allow for the expression of free speech, Popoff is also looking at taking legal action against the city for the infringement of his right to free speech.
“I am contacting lawyers in an effort to sue the city of Marco Island for failing to provide my 1st amendment rights,” Popoff wrote in a post on Facebook. “On 4/15/19 at the city council meeting I was heckled and booed to the point that I could not speak over the angry mob, even with a microphone. This is the legal definition of the heckler’s veto.”