Spring 2008 Issue
Into the breach
Hollywood Police Chief Chad Wagner ’91 is rallying his nearly 600-person department in the face of South Florida’s rising crime rate
By Rebecca Wakefield
It took Chad Wagner a long time to become chief of the Hollywood Police Department, and the promotion came just as the department was facing some of its biggest challenges in years.
Former chief James Scarberry retired this past fall after eight years, at a time when morale in the department was sinking because of rising crime in Hollywood and a high-profile FBI sting that ended with the convictions of four officers on charges of conspiracy to transport heroin. The city also faced severe budget cuts as the result of statewide property tax reform.
On November 1, Wagner, an affable 47-year-old, who had been assistant chief for operations since 2002, was named interim chief by City Manager Cameron Benson. His appointment was made permanent on March 10. The department has a $67 million budget and 331 sworn officers, plus another 250 civilian employees.
“It was very humbling,” Wagner recalls. “I was honored because we have such a great command staff. Just the fact the manager thought that much of me felt great.”
Wagner, a 25-year veteran of the department, is the first insider to head the department in more than two decades. In previous years, the city often turned to a national search to find its chief, a process which has had mixed results. In many ways, Wagner is the perfect choice at a critical time.
He knows the department inside and out. He knows what works and what needs work. And with retirement approaching, he has little to lose by making the hard but necessary decisions.
Joel Cantor, the police department’s attorney, has known Wagner for 25 years. He describes Wagner’s strengths as being the depth of his institutional knowledge and his down to earth, transparent style.
“With him there’s no pretense -- what you see is what you get,” Cantor says. “He doesn’t believe in layers of bureaucracy. The rank and file refers to him as Chad. It’s hard to remember to call him Chief.”
A South Florida native, Wagner attended North Miami Beach Senior High School and joined the Army upon graduation. There, he gained experience as a military police officer, an MP, and, in 1983, he joined the Hollywood Police Department. He was influenced, he says, by growing up with a stepfather who spent 33 years with the Miami Dade Police Department. “I had the utmost respect for him and his friends growing up,” he says. “They were my role models -- great guys who were honorable and did good things for people.”
Police work suited him. He spent 10 years as a patrolman and then detective before deciding to take a promotional exam to become a sergeant. “Those were some of the best years I had,” he said. “I advanced probably late by some standards [many officers start moving up the command chain after five or six years]. But I loved being a police officer. I had no interest in rank. I had a family life and I had very good assignments.”
As Wagner and his wife raised three children, he worked nearly every division and unit the department has – from traffic stops as a motorcycle cop to traffic homicides, burglaries, robberies, sex crimes, arson, you name it. He particularly enjoyed the detective work because it allowed him to see a situation through from the moment he got a case to the end result in a courtroom.
But eventually, he wanted a new challenge. He began taking classes at Barry University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies, before applying to become a sergeant in 1993. Two years later, he made another leap, this time to lieutenant. As Lt. Wagner, he often served as the department’s spokesman to the news media.
In February of 2000, he made the rank of captain and in November of 2000 that of major. He earned a master of science in management from St. Thomas University the following year. As major, Wagner supervised the community-oriented policing division. In 2002, he was named assistant chief.
He was in that position last July when four officers were caught in Operation Tarnished Badge, in which undercover FBI agents posed as members of a New York crime family. The officers took money to provide protection, transport heroin, and fence stolen property for men they thought were mobsters.
The scandal and the resignation of the previous chief rocked the department. Into the breach of morale, Wagner stepped. According to Cantor, in the dark moments after the scandal broke, Wagner played a key role. “Chad is one of the few that even the federal agencies looked at as a beacon of integrity,” he said.
One advantage he enjoys is being a known and trusted quantity throughout the department and the community. He’s considered a fair man who listens, and is well-liked by the rank and file.
Wagner, with the silver hair, blue eyes and the square jaw of a TV cop, is also low-key, friendly and direct. His office features family photos, framed degrees, a quotation about teamwork, a large alligator’s head, and a row of small lighthouses someone gave him. He exudes an air of calm and confidence, as if somewhere in the back of his mind he’s in a fishing boat miles from shore.
That mentality helps when the going gets tough. Last year saw a spike in crime in Hollywood and across the nation. Statistics released in December by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement documented a more than seven percent increase in crime in Hollywood in just the first six months of 2007.
The murder rate also spiked, with 10 reported murders in early 2007, versus just eight in all of 2006. Crime went up in almost every category in fact – robberies (including an increase in armed robberies), car thefts, burglaries, rapes.
In broader context, 2007 was a tragic year for police officer deaths in South Florida. Six officers died violently while on the job, and several more died at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2008. It seemed for a time that the moment police officers took the black memorial bands off their badges, another officer would be killed.
One factor is the uptick in assault rifles found on South Florida streets since 2004, when the 10-year federal ban on them expired. Alarmed by the “arms race,” the International Association of Chiefs of Police has called for a renewal of the ban. Police agencies throughout the region have also lately been buying assault rifles and training officers in their use.
Hollywood PD has about 50 assault rifles in the field now, and Wagner would like to expand the program. “We’re looking for money for more weapons and training,” he says. “It’s an issue. The reality is they are extremely dangerous [in the hands of criminals] and we don’t like to see them on the streets.”
Other issues all police forces face are fewer community programs for kids, increased gang activity and the impact of overcrowded jails in creating a harder core of criminals. The streets have gotten meaner for the average cop, Wagner admits. “Like the rest of the country, we've had an increase in crime,” he says. “But we’re addressing it.”
This is one of Wagner’s top goals as chief. The first thing he did upon appointment was to take officers in desk jobs and put them back on the streets. He began moving to pare down administrative costs by reducing his command staff and placed a renewed emphasis on community-oriented policing. He also launched a series of anti-crime initiatives, such as Shining Shield, which cracks down on pockets of chronic street crime like drug dealing and prostitution.
He shifts in his seat when asked to recall a tough 2007 and the department scandal. But he addresses it head on. “It was very embarrassing,” he admits. “It was a lesson for everybody. We’re the local police and the community needs to feel they can trust us and turn to us for help.”
To accomplish that goal, he has worked to put as many officers on the street as possible. And he’s personally reviewing every new hire to ensure that Hollywood grooms high quality officers right from the start.
He is also out there at as many community meetings as he can, making himself a visible presence and an example to his own force. “I want people to understand the importance of the little things.”
And of course, Wagner is hoping all the little things add up, and that under his direction, the Hollywood Police Department will become an even stronger force than when he took office.
“This is a great way to finish out my time in Hollywood,” he says. “It’s really a great department. I’m happy to lead it.”