Fort Myers Police achieve prestigious honor; look toward future with new HQ

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

Law enforcement is on the job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it helps to know the people who wear the badge are using best practices when doing such an important job.

“We improved, we climbed out of that low point that you spoke of, and we’re still ascending right now,” Fort Myers Chief of Police Jason Fields beams.

It’s not just big talk from Chief Fields. The Fort Myers Police Department will receive CALEA accreditation next month for just the second time in its history.  CALEA is the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Program Manager Vince Dauro explains the process, which takes months of evaluation.

“It takes a lot of work, and it takes a willingness to let a third party come in, examine all your policies, procedures and personnel, and ensure you’re doing the right things for the right reasons,” Dauro details.

CALEA sends staff to examine every part of a police department or sheriff’s office. Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson, a 24-year veteran of FMPD, calls the process exhaustive.

“It really takes a lot to meet the standards,” Anderson admits. “You’ve got to go through every policy, and make sure every policy and procedure is written to their standard.”

Evaluating standards

The 138-page report reveals every way CALEA assessed FMPD. 114 standards for the most important jobs an officer does; missing persons, search and rescue, and use of reasonable force among them.

The recent shooting of a Fort Myers man after a standoff in Dunbar caused some to question the department’s actions. That incident is still under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement – but as a CALEA-certified agency, FMPD can take pride in how the agency prepares and the guidelines it follows.

“We look at their files, we look at their police reports that they do, that meet the intent of the standard. And we also, every year, communicate with members of the agency.”

FMPD achieved CALEA accreditation for the first time in 2020. A review of that report shows CALEA heavily weighed crime stats that reflected local trends.

From 2016 to 2020, FDLE numbers show violent crime fell more than 50 percent, while the department’s clearance rates skyrocketed.

“We had to do a complete shift and change on how we police,” Fields explains. “We’re a lot more strategic on how we approach crime, people that commit crime, areas that crime happens in.”

In the most recent CALEA window, from 2020 to 2024, the numbers continue to improve. The latest FDLE data available from 2021 shows a four percent decrease in violent crime and 12 percent decrease in overall crime. Fields credits the city for investing in modern policing technology: body cams, Shotspotters, and surveillance equipment.

“It gets us to scenes quicker, it helps us with follow-ups and crimes,” Fields says “It helps us identifying certain suspects or victims.”

Crime rates in Fort Myers began dropping in 2016 and have continued a steady decline in recent years.

CALEA also notes FMPD’s continued emphasis on community engagement, pointing to the “True Blue” program and five new sub-stations around the city.

Positive community interaction is a cause the late Chief Derrick Diggs started and Fields has picked up. Veterans swear it helps in the field.

“If the community trusts us, they’ll be more willing to talk to us,” Fields claims. “To provide witness statements, to be on the crime prevention side of things.”

“You learn so much when you’re out there interacting with people,” Anderson adds. “I think for people to see police as an individual, as another person, as a human being, it just brings another level of appreciation and respect.”

Need for new headquarters

For all the positives, the 2024 CALEA report wasn’t flawless at FMPD. The agency expressed two concerns that exist because of the building the department runs out of.

CALEA noticed the first problem back in 2020, and it’s even more noticeable now: FMPD has outgrown its current building.

“There’s three floors on this building. We feel it on every floor,” Chief Fields admits with a smile. “We’re resilient. We’re going to look for every nook and cranny, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

During their most recent evaluation, CALEA noted more than 66 thousand pieces of property and evidence are stored at HQ. A random check found the area was “clean and organized” but still cramped.

A rare look inside FMPD’s cramped evidence and storage space.

Another way to see the lack of space? The department has been forced to spread out, with satellite offices and off-site training sites miles apart across the city.

CALEA notes FMPD’s real-time crime center operates about a block from headquarters. The report lauds how it operates, but claims that all divisions should operate out of the same building.

The late Chief Derrick Diggs took WINK News on a tour of headquarters back in 2021. Built-in 1983, the current structure is busting at the seams. There are offices in closets, evidence overflowing into storage units, and those problems have gotten worse in the three years since.

CALEA’s latest report notes the city’s plans for a new headquarters site at the corner of Fowler and Market Street. But the report also says, “political will and budget pressures could hamper the timeline.” The agency worries about how quickly the site will turn into a brand-new building.

FMPD has gotten its headquarters hopes dashed before. The former News-Press building downtown was set to be converted into a new headquarters, only for the city to reverse course because the project got too expensive. Anderson is working to make sure this new site comes to fruition.

“We push and we advocate for this project to get moving,” Anderson assures. “We get to the point where those doors are open.”

“The urgency is there, everybody realizes it,” Fields says. “It’s nice to see that!”

CALEA also claims maintaining the current “high level of policing” will be challenging as southwest Florida’s population continues to explode. Using numbers from a University of Cincinnati study, they project the city to add 2-3 thousand residents every year for the next five years.

With that data, FMPD is about seven percent below standard for staffing. The new headquarters is set to be built on more than 5.6 acres of land and while plans aren’t finalized, it will be a massive upgrade. More space, centralized operations, and improved resources will also help address staffing.

“I just have to smile and think, how much more effective will they be when we bring them together and they can function more efficiently,” Anderson wonders.

There is no projected date for FMPD’s new headquarters to open, but the city hopes to have shovels in the ground before the end of the year.

CALEA accreditation did cost over $16,000 in taxpayer funds to receive. FMPD staff is traveling to receive the award on March 21.

Other SWFL law enforcement agencies that are CALEA accredited include Cape Coral Police Department, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.

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