June 28, 2020

City seeks to address racial justice, looks toward next steps with COVID-19

The past month has shaken our community as we continue to suffer the effects of the COVID-19 virus as well as the devasting impact of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

His death was disturbing not only in its brutality and lack of humanity but also in the abuse of a police officer’s power. Our collective conscience was shaken, and the public outpouring of emotion hit home locally as people took to the streets in protest. So many of our community are angry and grieving at the loss of too many black lives.

Like my colleagues on the City Commission and across the country, I recognize the need to do more to combat racism within law enforcement and to retool use-of-force policies with common-sense limits. We also need to look at ourselves and consider how racism permeates our own way of life.

There is no question we have fallen short in our guiding principle of equal justice for all in America. 

The discussion that we must undertake may make some uncomfortable and others defensive, but answers must be found if we are to live up the standards that we hold dear as citizens of a civilized society.

As mayor, I recently signed the Obama Foundation’s pledge to undertake meaningful reform to ensure the deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are not in vain.

I was proud to join mayors from Atlanta and Dallas to Chattanooga and Reno in this pledge. The group of mayors is promising to review use-of-force policies, engage their city in discussion by including a diverse range of input and experiences, report their findings for review and feedback, and then reform existing policies based on the findings.

The vast majority of police officers who serve our community do an outstanding job. And, we have a great base to build from locally as we look at the issues in front of us. In recent years, the city made progress in establishing a good department and instituting some strong, forward-thinking policies, but we know we still have work to do.

Recent events illustrate there is room for improvement.

It was reprehensible for a police officer to shove a kneeling protester who had her hands in the air. He escalated a tense situation that was developing after a peaceful protest ended downtown. The city is looking into what happened to LaToya Ratlieff, a Delray Beach resident attending the May 31 protest. Although she is seen in videos conducting herself peacefully, Ms. Ratlieff was seriously injured when she was struck in the head with a rubber bullet fired by a police officer.

The efforts we are beginning to undertake do not involve abolishing or defunding the Police Department. The work of law enforcement is vital to a civil society – whether it is preventing a drunk driver from causing mayhem or catching a person who robbed a convenience store or helping restore order after a devastating hurricane.

What we seek is meaningful reform. Let’s work as a community so we can create better practices and policies and improve recruitment, training and retention programs.

The police chief has taken a first step by adding to his department’s rules an obligation that officers must intervene if they see bad conduct by a colleague.

Other critical measures have been in place for some time.

The Police Department currently requires job candidates to undergo psychological reviews, screening them for bias and a propensity for violence. Fort Lauderdale PD even employs a full-time staff psychologist. Each year, the city mandates compliance training for all officers.

All officers wear body cameras to record their interactions with the public. Choke holds have long been banned. Many officers are trained in crisis intervention to help them recognize people in distress and locate services for them. And, our department is more diverse than ever in its staffing.

The City Commission and city manager have agreed to create a working group to study reform, and we will ensure it is comprised of a cross-section of our community. A good place for the group to begin their discussion is to review an in-depth assessment of the Police Department undertaken five years ago.

It found significant room for improvement and concluded that the agency needed to address a perception among many residents that police officers did not treat citizens equally.

I’d suggest the upcoming work group determine how well the Police Department implemented the 2015 recommendations. They also should conduct an updated analysis to find what additional measures are needed.

One area that I’m particularly concerned about is how civilian complaints are investigated.

The 2015 report concluded that the role of the Citizen Police Review Board is unclear and that the department has had major challenges in addressing complaints. I’d like the board to have more independence and greater authority.

I urge calm and patience as we strive to do better. Fort Lauderdale is our city, and violence gets us nowhere. 

Let’s switch to COVID-19.

Three months have now passed since we began dealing with the existence of the COVID-19 virus in our community. We all are anxious to restore our economy, but we are seeing some disturbing trends regarding infection.

As Broward County began reopening businesses and amenities a month ago, the percent of people testing positive for the virus had fallen very low – under 2 percent of all the tests performed.

But since then, the numbers have risen back to almost 5 percent. That is still far below the danger level set by health experts and even further from the level we saw at the peak of the COVID pandemic in April.

Also of concern is that we have experienced a couple days recently of a record number of positive results.

In meetings with myself and other mayors from around the county, health experts put that data in context and suggested no one overreact.

They have discovered no cluster of new infections around reopened businesses and amenities. In fact, they said recent testing has focused on areas of the county where they knew pockets of infection existed. 

The health experts also said the virus seems to have mutated to become weaker. Deaths from COVID are trending downward. The number of cases requiring hospitalization are fewer, hospital stays are shorter, and the use of ventilators is declining.

Still, the uptick in infections is worthy of words of caution.

It is extremely important for people to wear face coverings in public as required. Social distancing must be observed. Good hygiene such as frequent hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces is necessary. Businesses that are open must ensure their customers follow the rules.

We need to follow these practices so we can continue reopening our economy and society.

The COVID virus has had a devastating economic impact. Businesses are suffering, and many people remain laid off or out of work. Several large businesses in our city’s hard-hit tourism and hospitality business have sent my office announcements of long-term job cuts. Nonetheless, Fort Lauderdale had a strong economy before COVID and will have a strong economy again.

Broward County officials in recent weeks added movie theaters, bowling alleys, museums, vacation rentals and summer camps to the list of what may be open. We expect a decision on entering the Phase 2 level of openings soon.

In closing, let me remind everyone that June is LGBT Pride month.

We are marking the 51 st anniversary of the Stonewall protests that launched the modern movement for LGBT equality. This year has been made even more special by the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that individuals cannot be discriminated against in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

I also wish everyone a great 4 th of July. Let’s join together and remember what makes the United States such a great place to live.

And we have great news!!

While other cities have cancelled their fireworks displays, the City Commission and I were determined to do something so the community could celebrate. Instead of a singular display on the beach, we will host four smaller fireworks displays across the city so people need not gather in one place and can instead step outside their homes and watch from their patio or front porch.

Please enjoy your summer and as always, remain safe and healthy.