Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz took charge in 2013. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to clean up the tarnished force.
At the time, the department was on an ugly roller-coaster, jolted by cases of officers careening down the wrong side of law, accused of falsifying police reports, conducting an illegal search, watching porn on duty or trafficking drugs.
Katz’s mission was lofty: healing the agency from the inside out. Wasting no time, Katz embarked on events of both small and large proportions that have rippled through the agency to change it for the better.
Still, the plague of allegations of misdeeds have continued with more cases where officers were arrested. Just this month, following an FBI investigation requested by the chief, two current and two former officers were indicted in a 2014 beating caught on video.
Katz, a realist, knows that changing the culture of an agency requires a “long, slow march — not a sprint.” And step by step, he has lead the 214-member police department toward improvement.
An early change in the department came when Katz had officers stop wearing uniforms that displayed their bulletproof vests and weapons. Everyone began wearing a new uniform meant to appear less intimidating, where the vest is hidden and weapons are on belts.
They also became particular about who gets hired. In the past four years, 82 percent of Boynton Beach Police Department’s new hires have college degrees, he said. Forty-three percent are minorities, about a third are women and about a third have prior police experience averaging more than six years.
Officers are trained to think through why they might write a traffic citation instead of issuing a warning, Katz said. It gives officers a deeper understanding of not just how they do the job, but why, he said. There is “de-escalation” training, aimed at officers knowing how to end tense situations peacefully.
A body-worn camera program, recently outfitted 86 road-patrol officers with chest-mounted cameras to record their interactions with members of the public.
Once overshadowed by the 2011 arrests of four Boynton officers, including the 2010 Officer of the Year (on drug-trafficking charges), a reorganization of officers’ positions ensued.
“A lot of guys had been there for a long time, and a lot of the policies, procedures and accountability all needed to be revisited and updated,” she said. “People naturally resist change, even if it’s good change, but he’s been very committed to making a difference.” City Manager Lori LaVerriere said
The command staff now work as one, so that officers know precisely what’s expected of them.
Katz said officers who own up to mistakes likely won’t get anything more than a written reprimand. “In 85 percent of the cases, that is precisely what our personnel do: own their mistakes. This is our personnel living the value of accountability.”
Other officers have faced harsher penalties. Some officers also have been fired in recent years. One of the thwarted officers was accused of raping woman while on duty in October 2014. A jury later acquitted that officer. The city was left to settle a law suit from the accuser for $875,000.
The chief asked the FBI to investigate when a group of officers was recorded beating the occupants of a Mitsubishi in 2014. Police said the Mitsubishi driver had led them on a chase that left one officer seriously injured.
The encounter resulted earlier this month in the arrests of a Boynton police Sgt. and a Boynton police Officer, both are on administrative leave, as well as two former officers. More officers may face charges in the case, a prosecutor said in court.
Over the past month, two other Boynton Beach officers were allegedly involved in off-duty actions.
Katz is angered by the actions.
“One thing I repeat to our personnel with great regularity is, ‘The least of us defines the rest of us, so on any given day, the least of us needs to be pretty darn good,’” Katz said.
Katz continues his efforts at quarterly town hall meetings where many of them supporters wear Citizens on Patrol attire.
Numerous outreach programs also have been introduced through the years, such as Coffee with a Cop, the Boys and Blue mentoring program for kids, and a Neighborhood Officer Program, where officers’ purpose is to foster relationships in the community.
The agency’s new therapy dog program, the first municipal policing program of its kind in the state. Harley, a beagle mix rescue, gets kids to feel at ease as they tell police about any case.
Katz believes the future is bright for Boynton Beach police.
“The foundation has been poured,” Katz said. “The focus has never been about doing what is expedient in the moment; rather, it has been on establishing a framework by which the department can continue to succeed, grow and develop in years to come.”