FORT PIERCE — Police Chief Diane Hobley-Burney has enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of Justice to reform her agency, which is long known for internal turmoil and a strained relationship with citizens of the northwest part of the city.
Two DOJ representatives were in Fort Pierce on Tuesday, at the chief’s request, to meet with her and other city officials to evaluate the Police Department and determine whether it qualifies for the federal Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance for agencies “with significant law enforcement-related issues.”
According to citizens, the Police Department needs an overhaul, and seeking out the DOJ is Hobley-Burney’s way of delivering on promises to improve the department and build trust with the community, she said Tuesday.
“I heard the voice of the people. They want to enhance the relationship that we have and I want to do everything possible to do that,” Hobley-Burney said after meeting with DOJ officials. She started as police chief just more than a year ago.
Fresh on people’s minds is the officer-involved fatal shooting of Demarcus Semer on North 19th Street on April 23. During a traffic stop, two Fort Pierce police officers tried to stop Semer as he attempted to flee in his vehicle, according to the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. Semer was shot outside his vehicle and died. The Sheriff’s Office was asked to investigate the shooting by Fort Pierce police.
The shooting caused outrage in the community, with some demanding an outside investigation by the Department of Justice. Mayor Linda Hudson last month wrote to the federal agency that the City Commission had unanimously voted to ask the DOJ to start its own investigation into the fatal shooting.
But the DOJ was not in town to investigate the case, Hobley-Burney said.
“We have not discussed it at any given point because that is an investigation that is ongoing,” she said.
Still, the DOJ is keeping a close eye on the case, said Noble Wray, chief of Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative, who was visiting Tuesday.
Wray said it could have an impact on the Justice Department’s recommendations for the Fort Pierce Police Department, if it assists Fort Pierce, he said.
“In any community that we come in when we’re doing an assessment, if there is a high-profile incident, we will understand that,” Wray said. “That may inform some of our findings and recommendations, but from the (Community Oriented Policing Services) office, we don’t actually come in and do an investigation.”
The DOJ is expected to make a decision within a few weeks whether to assist Fort Pierce, and if it does, could begin work in the city immediately after, Wray said.
There would be no cost to Fort Pierce, he said.
The purpose of the program is to improve trust between agencies and the communities they serve. It’s a long-term strategy that identifies problems and then offers recommendations on how to resolve them. Contractors overseen by a DOJ official will work with the Police Department for approximately two years, Wray said.
“The process itself is a very inclusive process. We get into the community. There will be listening sessions and focus groups,” Wray said. “We do the same internally, talking to rank-and-file officers and union chiefs. We do a serious analysis of the department — policies, procedures, recruitment, hiring.”
While in town, Wray and his partner also met with Fort Pierce City Manager Nick Mimms and about 22 citizens at City Hall, he said.
Article source: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/crime/st-lucie-county/fort-pierce-police-chief-seeks-help-from-department-of-justice-to-overhaul-department-365d773d-2682--384761731.html