November 25, 2014
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'We Are Actively Pursuing You'

Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker is putting his city's most dangerous criminals on notice that he is moving aggressively and resourcefully to cut the local murder rate.

The mightiest weapon in Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker’s arsenal isn’t anything in the department’s armory. It’s probably his word processor.

From his office downtown, he’s written scores of letters to the most dangerous criminals in the city, his rogues’ gallery of the 25 men who at any time reside in a community of 63,000.

In the letters, which haven’t been made public as they are part of “ongoing investigations,” Baker makes a pretty simple case.

“We know what you’ve done,” the 50-year-old lawman says. “Here are the things witnesses have told us. Here’s what we know from confidential informants. Here’s what we’ve heard on the street. “And we are actively pursuing you.”

But there’s more. The letter goes on to say two important things. First, any time you are inside city limits, someone from Baker’s department will be watching. They’ll be waiting for a mistake. And then, they will make an arrest.

And, just as importantly, if you want out of this madness, they’ll do everything they can to help you out.

So far, Baker hasn’t gotten any takers on that last offer.

"Well, two mothers came forward wanting to get their kids—I say kid, but they are probably 23 years old—out of the life,” he says. “But at the 11th hour, they backed out. So, no. No one has said ‘Yes,’ yet.”

The letters are just the latest in a long line of tactics from a department and a chief willing to try whatever it takes to curb a two-year stretch of homicides that puts Fort Myers in the running for one of the deadliest cities in America. With 24 homicides in 2012, the city’s murder rate of 38.1 per 100,000 ranks up there with the likes of Newark (33.8), St. Louis (35.3) and Baltimore (31.3). It dwarfs both the state of Florida rate (5.2 per 100,000) and the national rate (4.8).

Perhaps most alarming is that the 24 deaths in 2012 and 20 in 2011 follow a low of 7 in 2010. That year is somewhat of an outlier, but the average number of homicides in Fort Myers from 2002 to 2009 was 14.5.

The murder rates run against the trend of crime in general, which has been on a pretty steady decline for the past decade-plus. While nationally the number of burglaries per hundred thousand people has stayed relatively fl at since 1999, it’s dropped by more than half in Fort Myers.

Baker has certainly gotten his fair share of positive headlines for the declining crime rates since taking over the top job after the last chief, Hilton Daniels, left when his contract expired in 2008. But it’s the murders that keep the community talking.

“All it takes is one homicide and all the good things go to waste,” says Larry Hart, former Fort Myers police chief and current Lee County Tax Collector. “Doug’s done a good job with a lot of things, especially given the resources. … But people want to feel safe in the community.

“Personally, I feel safe. I was born and raised here, I grew up here and I know what’s going on. But if all you do is read the headlines, I can understand how people would be uneasy.”

It's a pretty typical Monday morning for Baker. He’s taken a quick run across the Cape Coral Bridge, grabbed a shower at the office and by 7:15 a.m. is sitting at his desk. His office is spacious, but can feel cramped, overflowing with photos of family and him and presidents, hundreds of books on law enforcement and management, commendations, awards, badges and plaques, and a dozen footballs—tellingly autographed mostly by coaches rather than players. His desk is littered with piles of papers and stacks of reports, but he “knows where everything is” in the controlled chaos.

He starts each day reading the reports that have come in since he was last in the office. Although he doesn’t read every document filed by a police officer under his command, he does familiarize himself with each case that falls under the FBI’s Unified Crime Reporting categories (aggravated assault, forcible rape, murder, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle threat).

“I want to know what’s going on in town,” he says. “I’ve got to know what questions to ask. And the bottom line is that it’s all my responsibility.”

The previous weekend saw the weather getting a bit warmer for the first time, typically a sign of increased violent activity, but things were pretty quiet. A map of the city on his computer screen shows the spots where each crime happened. There was not much in the way of patterns from the weekend, and one area is conspicuously absent of any activity—Dunbar, a predominantly poor, black area of the city.

This one stretch of the 48 square miles that fall under Baker’s jurisdiction accounts for the majority of the murders he sees. Cull it out and you are talking about the difference between Fort Myers and Cape Coral, which despite a population of more than twice the size has fewer than half the violent crimes committed on an annual basis.

As Baker’s morning continues, he’ll talk to various command staff members about what they have been working on and where they are putting resources for the coming week. But no conversation will go on without a mention of something happening in Dunbar, be it the double- homicide a few weeks back that claimed the life of a local football star or surveillance work done with the help of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Later in the morning, after stopping to help a stranded motorist move her car off the busy Martin Luther King Boulevard onto a side street, he’ll discuss these topics on a taping of Lee Pitts Live, a local Sunday morning talk show that has a big reach in the African-American community.

Although blacks make up only 32 percent of Fort Myers’ population, making continual inroads in that community is one of Baker’s biggest challenges. The majority of homicides happen among young black men. As such, he takes every opportunity he can to speak to them. During the interview with Pitts, he makes sure to mention a new mentoring and leadership program some of his officers are running in the Dunbar area, and hoping to expand to other parts of the city and county.

On TV, Baker is exactly what you’d want in a law enforcement leader. He’s tall and fit, with the weathered good looks that suggest a former matinee idol who knows his way around a fight. Even the black cowboy boots he wears with the dress blues give an aura of fortitude. Yet, he answers each question as if it’s the most important thing on his mind. He doesn’t diminish the concerns of those seeking his help, no matter how far removed from his perch their problems might be.

This combination of tough exterior and empathetic personality is, in essence, the image he hopes for the entire department to project. “You’ve got to have balance,” Baker says of his policing philosophy. “The community has certain expectations. And there has to be equal parts prevention, enforcement and investigation. You need to have enforcement, but if you just focused on that, it would be detrimental. You’ve got to strike that balance using intelligence-led policing.”

One of Doug Baker's greatest strengths might be his ability to make whomever he talks to feel like the center of attention, adding a personal connection to his tough-guy exterior.

One thing that is fairly obvious as you watch Baker interact with his commanders is his commitment to diversity. It’s one of the areas where he earns high praise throughout the community,including from the local chapter of the NAACP, which has a surprisingly good relationship with the department after years of distrust of previous administrations.

“He’s really diversified his captains,” says James Muwakkil, president of the Lee County chapter of the NAACP. “There are white and black and women in top positions. We like his leadership.”

His goal is to have a department with at least 20 percent women, 20 percent Hispanics and 20 percent African-Americans. He’s there with women, but is still working to make it with the other two groups. “We have a very diverse community,” Baker says. “It just makes good sense.”

For a kid from Kent, Ohio, who wanted to be a forest ranger, understanding the perspectives of a community as diverse as Fort Myers took time. While he knew a few black kids from pickup basketball games, he hadn’t met any Hispanics until coming to the area. He also hadn’t met many people from outside his own little world of northern Ohio.

When he arrived in Fort Myers in 1986, he found a community with equal parts rich and poor, white and Hispanic, black and Creole, educated and illiterate. People came from not only all over the country but all over the world—from Latin America to Western Europe.

“It’s a boiling pot of different traditions,” he says. “I think when people first come down here they expect to do things like they did up north. When I hear people say that now, I say, ‘You ain’t there no more. Be ready to roll with the changes.’”

It’s easy to get the sense that Baker was born into the job and the community. But as with his personal life of highs (three children: one in the armed services, one working in government and the other in college) and lows (he’s currently going through his second divorce), the ride as chief hasn’t always been smooth. Yet the avid fisherman knows you might have to deal with a little choppy water to get to where you are going.

Just before taking over as interim chief in 2008, Baker was the top officer in town when a rookie cop, Andrew Widman, was shot and killed while breaking up a domestic dispute. At the same time, the department was offering buyouts to senior officers as a way to cut payroll. In the end, 43 people including Baker—took the buyout. If he hadn’t been named chief, he wouldn’t be with the department.

But every other member of the command staff also took the buyout, leaving a severe vacuum of leadership at the top. Coupled with Widman’s death and the increased work load brought on by 20 percent fewer officers, it could have been a recipe for chaos.

“It’s been my experience that these are the times when an agency pulls together,” Baker says. “Everyone does what they are supposed to do to get the job done.”

That sense of pulling together is what Baker is hoping to achieve with the community. For the past few years he’s been urging the community to stop harboring the people who are committing these violent crimes.

“Within 30 minutes of a shooting, I have a suspect or suspects’ names,” he says. “Somebody’s seen something and someone has picked up the phone. But there aren’t people who will testify.”

Although he's almost five years into the job, Baker still sees a lot of ways to continue improving his force, starting with more minority officers.

Some of it comes from a longstanding mistrust of the police in the black community dating back to a much more segregated time, says Abdul Muhammed, president of the Quality of Life Center. “There’s definitely a fear there,” he says. “Law enforcement has to utilize its technological skills first because there is a reluctance on the part of people to expose themselves (as witnesses).”

Whether it’s a fear of the police themselves or fear of retaliation when officers let a witness name slip out depends on the situation. Many times, the violence is one neighborhood against another, so the communities feel like they are protecting their own by keeping quiet, Baker says.

Baker has tried to allay some of the concerns about getting involved in the legal process. This year he asked local legislators to consider adopting a law that would remove names of certain witnesses from public records. While it didn’t even make the conversation in Tallahassee, local leaders took notice of Baker trying something new.

“There are times we disagree,” Muwakkil of the NAACP says. “But he listens to our suggestions. He picks up the phone.” Muhammed agrees the community has the chief ’s ear. Last year, he and other leaders went to the police headquarters downtown to raise concerns about what they saw as open drug dealing in certain parts of the city.

“We felt there was a need for more presence,” Muhammed says. “To his credit, (the chief) has upped his efforts. There’s still much more that needs to be done, though.”

Baker says some of the work needs to fall to other agencies that are better equipped to deal with the root causes that lead people to his doorstep. When asked if he could solve the city’s crime problems with a more robust budget, Baker says the money shouldn’t necessarily be going to police.

“The job of government is to provide opportunities,” he says. “More policing isn’t going to help that. We need more social services. These families are going through issues with mental health, with addiction-related problems, with education. That’s where the dollars have to be.

“We have worked to train sworn (officers) and civilians to identify individuals in crisis, and we’ve developed a lot of great partnerships with groups. But they are the experts in that. And if they get to them first, then I don’t have to make an arrest.”

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