A laurel for the Sun Sentinel

Paper's I-team takes a hard look at how--and why--one police department lures drug buyers to town

MIAMI, FL — When CJR interviewed Howard Saltz, editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, earlier this year, he had this to say about running a paper whose newsroom had been slashed during the crisis: “We’ve chosen to make investigative a priority out of the resources that we have.” The paper had preserved a dedicated investigative team, and given it a mandate not to do “small stuff,” but to devote weeks or months on a story and deliver a grand slam.

Saltz made those comments in April, soon after the Sun Sentinel won its first Pulitzer—a public service award for the I-team’s 2012 investigation into the dangerous speeding habits of local off-duty police. The paper’s investigative unit is now making waves again by scrutinizing police practices—this time, a deep dive into a small Broward County police department that makes millions every year by selling drugs

Earlier this month, the paper’s Megan O’Matz and John Maines reported that police in Sunrise, FL, use state and federal forfeiture laws to seize cash and cars from drug dealers lured to the suburban community by undercover officers and a “femme fatale” informant. Here’s the lead of the multi-part investigative report:

Police in this suburban town best known for its sprawling outlet mall have hit upon a surefire way to make millions. They sell cocaine.

Undercover detectives and their army of informants lure big-money drug buyers into the city from across the United States, and from as far north as Canada and as far south as Peru. They negotiate the sale of kilos of cocaine in popular family restaurants, then bust the buyers and seize their cash and cars.

Police confiscate millions from these deals, money that fuels huge overtime payments for the undercover officers who conduct the drug stings and cash rewards for the confidential informants who help detectives entice faraway buyers, a six-month Sun Sentinel investigation found.

Police have paid one femme fatale informant more than $800,000 over the past five years for her success in drawing drug dealers into the city, records obtained by the newspaper show.

O’Matz and Maines reviewed records of 644,000 jail bookings and found that over a more than four-year span, police in mid-sized Sunrise (population about 88,000) arrested more people on cocaine charges than any other municipal department in the county, including much larger Fort Lauderdale (pop. 170,000). And arrested people in Sunrise came from farther away: just seven resided within the city limits, 83 came from Miami-Dade County to the south, and 39 were from outside Florida altogether. (The same numbers for Ft. Lauderdale: 42, eight, and zero). But those out-of-towners were hardly kingpins: the Sun Sentinel’s reporting, based on a review of court records, concluded that many of the would-be drug buyers were middlemen or mules, or cash-strapped people enticed by discount deals offered by Sunrise police.

The reporters also used U.S. Department of Justice reports to put together a database of the money seized through forfeiture by Sunrise and 261 other law enforcement departments in the state. The searchable database, which is posted online, shows that Sunrise outpaced every municipal department in the state in the amount of federal shared forfeiture funds it spent, even topping Miami-Dade County’s police department—the largest law enforcement agency in the Southeast. It’s an interesting resource for reporters around the state to check on their own police departments.

So where’d the money go? Much of it went to help pay overtime costs for undercover officers, broken down (without names attached) in an accompanying graphic. A chunk more went to pay informants, most notably that “femme fatale.” A separate chart shows data on 63(!) stings she was involved with, netting more than $5 million in seized assets. (The paper obtained informant pay logs under the state’s Sunshine Law “after repeated legal battles over the cost, accuracy and completeness of the documents being provided to the newspaper,” according to a reporters’ note.)

The investigation has drawn follow-up coverage from ABC and CNN, though it hasn’t made the paper any friends among officialdom in Sunrise. O’Matz, Maines, and colleague Susannah Bryan reported over the weekend that the department’s undercover stings had been halted. The city’s mayor, who supports the stings, said that move was made because the paper exposed police tactics and strategy. One commissioner accused the Sun Sentinel at a public meeting of doing “a great service” to “the criminal community.”

That criticism is misguided. The investigation raised important questions—and not just about Sunrise. All law enforcement agencies have an incentive to make a profit on drug busts, especially in “reverse stings” like the ones Sunrise was conducting. And even if you don’t give much weight to civil liberties concerns, and view the department’s motivations in the most charitable light, it’s appropriate for members of the community to know about—and have an opportunity to debate—the extraordinary tactics used by local police. Without oversight, things can go awry—as seems to have happened at other departments.

The Sun Sentinel’s work here was detailed, comprehensive, thoughtful, and compelling. It was a big journalistic result after a big investment of resources—exactly what the paper’s editor says he wants to see.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: ,