Marco City Council not ready for outside investigation of police department just yet
Veteran Alex Popoff’s message to the Marco Island City Council Monday was just as clear as it was last month when he pointed out the problems within the city’s police department.
The major difference was that Popoff could speak his piece without interruption and for at least one councilor, his words were enough to reconsider a previously failed motion to look at a third-party investigation of the department.
“Look at what happens to those who speak the truth,” Popoff said. “They get dismissed, called liars and slandered while others get a red carpet to rant for 14 minutes.”
While the motion ultimately failed 4-3, it wasn’t without additional support from members of the dais, who said they would support an investigation once a new police chief and manager are onboard.
At the council’s April 15 meeting, Popoff stood up as the lone voice opposing the “Keep the Chief” campaign, a movement which was aimed at protesting Police Chief Al Schettino’s forced retirement.
Videos of Popoff's speech and how he was poorly treated quickly went viral.
Although he tendered a letter on Feb. 21 announcing his retirement, Schettino was in fact asked to resign by City Manager David Harden after yet another embarrassing incident within the police department.
Last year, the police department faced scrutiny after three officers were found to have had sex on duty, prompting two to resign and one other to be terminated. A fourth officer, who knew about the actions of one officer but never reported it to a supervisor, was also reprimanded before being promoted months later.
Schettino’s decision-making was called into question again earlier this year when the Marco Eagle reported and Harden learned that the police department continued to use an officer on patrol that the state attorney’s office refused to call as a witness in criminal trials.
Officer Tige Thompson, whose employment is currently in limbo, was called to a scene in late December where a man had barricaded himself in his home with a cache of firearms, which later prompted SWAT to respond.
Due to the officer’s involvement, the state attorney’s office declined to prosecute. The same pattern has remained true in numerous arrests Thompson has made over the past several years.
Additional incidents have come to light since including an EEOC complaint alleging discrimination, harassment and intimidation within the police department.
Popoff noted that he was heckled and shouted over during his right to speak and that there was a mob-mentality every time anyone called into question the actions of the police department.
“Every time transparency is attempted, a crowd assembles and shouts down attempts to move forward,” Popoff said.
After the crowd dissipated on April 15, a motion for the city manager to bring back options for an independent audit and investigation was only supported by Councilors Jared Grifoni and Larry Honig.
On Monday, Councilor Sam Young asked the council to reconsider its previous position.
Harden said after consulting with other police professionals, including the Florida Police Chiefs Association, it was his belief that a new chief should be on board before moving forward with any investigation.
“My thought was that the new police chief would investigate these things,” Harden said. “They felt that was the best approach since a new chief coming in is not going to want to rely solely on what some outside investigator found (and) that he or she would want to do their own investigation on those matters. They felt there would be some duplication.”
Council Chairperson Erik Brechnitz echoed Harden’s comments in explaining why he chose not to vote in favor of an investigation just yet.
“We need to allow the new police chief, whomever it may be, to do what he needs to do to evaluate his department without any outside influence,” Brechnitz said.
Other councilors noted, prior to Tuesday’s special City Council meeting where Mike McNees was selected to be the next city manager, that there would also be new leadership at the helm soon.
Harden said before the selection was made that he would like the new manager to participate in the interview process and provide his thoughts.
Grifoni said that consulting with the new city manager and police chief did not preclude the council from saying that an investigation needed to be done.
“It’s council’s job to step up and take a position and not let someone shoulder the heavy burden here, which is to make a very difficult decision, and force it through without clear direction from the city council,” Grifoni said.