Boynton Beach’s top cop reflects on years as chief, future

After nearly five years of working to improve the public perception of the Boynton Beach Police Department, top cop Jeffrey Katz has a message for his replacement.

“This is not an organization in crisis or chaos anymore,” he said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post, just a few weeks before he’ll leave South Florida for a job in Virginia.

Katz knows crisis and chaos.

It was about four years ago when City Manager Lori LaVerriere promoted Katz from a lieutenant in professional standards to the chief of the department that had just been labeled by an outside review a “troubled organization” and “beset with strife.”

Inside the department, some officers were campaigning for their own picks and, with the help from their union, they fought against Katz and policies he brought forward.

Fights about pay led to the union parading a billboard through the city with unflattering caricatures of Katz. And the union pushed for the department to be taken over by the sheriff’s offfice, leading some officers to wear “Let us go to PBSO” T-shirts.

Plus, from 2011 to late 2014, six city officers were arrested. One of those officers, Stephen Maiorino, was accused of rape. He was eventually acquitted and has resigned. And officer David Britto, while awaiting trial on trafficking-in-methamphetamine charges, fled to Brazil.

“It was tough,” Katz said. He said he tried to focus on the fact that the pushback he was receiving wasn’t personal, but often the attacks against him were, because there was “change.”

After some time, Katz broke through. He didn’t win everyone over, but to many residents and officers he became a chief that not only stabilized the department, but moved it forward.

“Most people saw my heart and the heart of our leadership team and saw that we do want what’s best for our personnel, and only by taking care of our personnel can we expect our personnel will take care of our public,” Katz said.

After nearly 20 years with Boynton, Katz will move to Virginia with his wife to lead the Chesterfield County police. His last day is Dec. 20.

LaVerriere wants to open a national search for Katz’s replacement, but will look inside as well. Katz thinks Assistant Chief Vanessa Snow would be the best fit.

Changing how things are done

Once appointed to the chief’s position in 2013, Katz went to work to change the image of the agency. He held quarterly town hall meetings where he and his officers met residents and answered questions.

He made himself approachable, often handing out his cell-phone number, encouraging people to call him with issues, said Rae Whitely, the spokesman for the Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy, which has met several times with Katz to help bridge the divide between police and some residents.

“Chief Katz began the turnaround of a culture. And that is so important because there was a huge divide with police, and community, especially in the Heart of Boynton,” said Whitely. “Is everything fixed? Nope. … But he started the ball moving in the right direction.”

Katz also focused on improving training and hiring practices.

Katz noticed that 66 percent of officers ranked a “moderate risk” in pre-employment psychological tests would eventually end up fired. He decided it was time to stop hiring the moderate-risk applicants.

Also, he started a point system for applicants. Applicants get a point for certain things, such as getting certified in the state of Florida, or for speaking a foreign language, or for being part of an underrepresented group . Then the hiring staff takes the top 20 percent of those with the highest points and evaluates those applicants first.

Katz said the department hasn’t fired anyone who has been hired while he has been chief.

Katz also changed the way staff trains. The department adopted an 18-week program that promotes more critical thinking. Asst. Chief Joseph DeGiulio and Capt. John Bonafair brought the program to the chief’s attention. Officers who train staff during the program receive a 7 percent pay increase andare given corporal stripes.

“To me they were the ambassadors between what this police department was going to become and what it was, and through this program they were going to be molding the officer of tomorrow,” Katz said.

Resident Harry Woodworth said he’s noticed a change in the officers since Katz took over.

“The department he inherited was quite a mess. They had some really bad apples,” he said. “There’s still some room for improvement but the new cops are just amazing.”

Woodworth said while he knows some residents think Katz could be tougher, he’s enjoyed Katz’s approach.

Constantly fighting crime

Regarding crime, the city has seen increases in burglaries and car thefts that Katz says can be attributed to the nationwide opioid epidemic.

“Overall, we’re as safe today as we were five years ago, but our property may not be,” he said.

But Katz is leaving when murders in the city are on the rise. The city has had nine homicides since January, the highest number since at least 2009. The most recent was Wednesday in the city’s Cherry Hills neighborhood.

And while not nearly as frequent as before his appointment, officers have gotten into trouble.

Officer Vinicius Melo was arrested on a charge of domestic battery in May. Nicholas Prince was placed on leave in June after allegedly driving his police truck off-duty while under the influence of alcohol.

This past month , a federal jury found Sgt. Philip Antico guilty of obstruction of justice for lying to FBI agents about a 2014 high-speed chase, which involved officers beating driver Byron Harris and his two passengers. The week before, another federal jury convicted officer Michael Brown of deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a firearm during a crime of violence for the beating of Jeffrey Braswell, one of Harris’ passengers. They’re to be sentenced next month.

“Unfortunately we’ve had some things like the Byron Harris incident which has really hung over the department’s head for years and … that doesn’t define the agency we are today. It’s a reflection or snapshot of the agency we were then,” Katz said.

Data reporter Mike Stucka contributed to this story.

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