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After complaints of ‘toxic morale,’ Coconut Creek police expect improvements

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 5/3/2024

An investigator’s review by a consulting firm of the Coconut Creek police department found the work environment “toxic,” officers were publicly berated and allegations of inappropriate comments by the chief. They were among a series of issues that led to suggestions for bringing changes.

City Commissioner Joshua Rydell vowed Friday that “action will be taken.”

“There’s some issues in the police department that need to be addressed immediately,” Rydell said. “I expect changes, I expect transparency, and I expect commitment to the Coconut Creek community; 1,000% our leadership intends to take action. That action will be developed over the coming weeks.”

Mayor Sandra Welch said she has called a public meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the report and the “action plans the city manager anticipates taking.”

“It’s the most appropriate way to publicly address the situation,” she said.

Last July the city announced it would hire a firm to conduct an outside review of its police department after a survey of more 100 officers included 70 pages of some anonymous, critical remarks of the police chief’s performance.

The initial survey results showed some officers criticizing Police Chief Butch Arenal, saying the agency wasn’t a healthy environment, and pleading with the city to find new leadership since “we need fresh blood.” They criticized changes such as their work boots — replaced from comfort to ones that will “hold a shine” — and accused the department of favoritism, and having a “stressful and undesirable environment.”

The consulting firm found that since the initial survey the agency had made efforts to change “but the efforts were characterized as insincere or hurried and only occurring to ‘save their jobs,’ ”

The report also cited that “sentiments of a negative and toxic morale were overwhelmingly expressed, and not simply by a small group or subsect of the employees, but by over 80% of the employees interviewed and consistent among both civilian and officer personnel at various position levels.”

The investigators found that the chief has an open-door policy for officers to bring their concerns and complaints directly to him. “However, many officers feel that this policy is not genuine or effective. They believe that their opinions are not valued or that they will face negative consequences for expressing their views.”

There were allegations accusing the chief of making inappropriate comments, including him allegedly telling a female officer she “looked too good, more like she was going to party” and telling a female employee that she’d make a good housewife. The chief denied ever having made any inappropriate comments and there were no reported witnesses to the comments alleged, the report found.

When Arenal was interviewed, he told investigators he wanted to rethink “the policy paradigm, which involves getting away from the old way of doing things like measuring how many tickets an officer has issued, and looking instead at measurable business metrics of what is a good cop such as measuring officer response times.”

He said a group of “paramilitary officers” that he refers to as “Tommy Tacticals” want to “stick with the traditional model of policing, which in his opinion is broken.” He wants his officers to understand “that every small good thing for a citizen is a deposit of goodwill in the community. He stated that some of the traditionalist (sic) simply don’t ascribe to it, but that he will continue to fight for the hearts and minds of his officers,” according to the report.

The report concluded: “In sum, there appears to be a disconnect between the Chief’s leadership style and the expectations and needs of the officers.”

Already some change has happened. Officers accused him of being an “absentee chief,” something Arenal denied. The chief said that he takes his own vacation time when he is away for events where he teaches chiefs. “Nonetheless, the Chief admits that in response to the survey he has been pounding the pavement, attending roll calls, and interacting with his officers,” according to the report.

Also, the chief is alleged to have used the term “black ass” multiple times, and the derogatory meaning varied on context.

“Most had never heard the phrase before and said they googled it or looked it up in the Urban Dictionary to understand where the Chief was coming from,” according to the report. “While most did not believe that the Chief’s intention was to be offensive or racist, everyone agreed it was an inappropriate and insensitive choice of words — especially considering that whatever the phrase meant or expressed, had a negative connotation.”

After “suggestions” to the chief from the city’s lawyers and Human Resources, “it appears that at some point, he eventually stopped using the phrase.”

Arenal told investigators he could only recall using the phrase “black ass” once, and it was a colloquial term used on the west coast of Florida to describe a malcontent employee. He denies it having had any racial connotation.

The investigator warns in the report: “It can also be argued that usage of the term could be found violative of the City’s policy against bullying since it was seen by many employees as a way to humiliate or mock someone that had a differing opinion or what the Chief perceived to be a sour attitude.” The investigator also suggests “that the policy violation be formally documented and that the appropriate disciplinary action be determined.”

Through a city spokesman, Arenal said in an email statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he is “committed to making this a positive turning point for our organization” and pledged to “develop action plans that prioritize accountability and improvement.”

“It is clear that we must improve our employees’ perceptions of leadership. Upon reviewing the report, I acknowledge that some statements were insensitive, and for that I apologize. Prior to receiving this report, over the past seven months, we have already initiated measures to address employee concerns, allocate necessary resources, and implement change where appropriate to better support our team’s success,” he said.

Among the investigator’s recommendations:

— Implementing an employee hotline, managed by a third party, that “can provide employees with a safe way to report complaints without the fear of retaliation.”

— Create a post-survey action plan “that details the issues raised both in the survey and this report” and identifies what steps, if any, the city will take to address it.

— Create a workplace mediation process overseen by an external third party “to assist with the facilitation of any reported workplace disputes.”

City Manager Sheila Rose said in a statement she is “presently reviewing and digesting the findings to determine how to address the raised concerns. The city is committed to making necessary improvements to promote positive and meaningful change.”

Arenal was hired in 2015 to lead the agency.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on X, formerly Twitter, @LisaHuriash

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