Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Rick Maglione has been removed from his position — nearly six weeks after a member of his SWAT team shot a peaceful Black Lives Matter protester in the face with a foam rubber bullet as other officers laughed and joked about firing potentially lethal weapons at civilians.
“The city manager made a decision this morning to make a change in leadership,” Maj. Frank Sousa told the Miami Herald. “The chief is not relieved of duty. He will remain a member of our organization in a position to be determined.”
Assistant Chief Karen Dietrich will serve as acting chief.
At a news conference Thursday, City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said no single “decision-making event” led to Maglione’s removal, but he hopes to hire a replacement who will change the department.
“Somebody who can use modern practice and come up with creative ideas,” Lagerbloom said.
LaToya Ratlieff, the protester who was shot in the face, has brought national attention to her ordeal — and to policing practices in Fort Lauderdale. She spoke at a congressional subcommittee briefing on police brutality late last month, recounting how the officer’s bullet fractured her right eye socket, opened a gash in her forehead that required 20 stitches and inflicted possible long-term damage to her vision. She has also told her story on several national television news shows.
At first, Maglione acknowledged his department might be at fault, saying shooting Ratlieff appeared to be a violation of policy. An internal affairs investigation was opened into the officer, Eliezer Ramos, who said that he shot Ratlieff accidentally while attempting to fire at a man hurling a tear gas canister back at officers. Department policy states officers should not fire rubber bullets at the head unless they have been authorized to use deadly force.
“I am responsible for every single thing that my police department does,” Maglione told the Miami Herald shortly after the May 31 protest.
But since then the chief had vigorously defended his officers, including two who were caught on a body camera celebrating after shooting protesters with rubber bullets. “Did you see me f**k up those motherf****rs?” one of the officers said. Policing experts and former officers condemned the behavior as misconduct.
“Law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly vilified and it is putting your police officers in harm’s way unjustly,” Maglione wrote in a lengthy July 4 public statement. “There has been irresponsible reporting with haste being the priority, while accuracy and objectivity have taken a back seat. Police officers have become the victims of politics and on occasion, the victims of unprovoked violent attacks. These attacks, for some unknown reason, receive little attention.”
The Herald exclusively published the body camera footage of the officers laughing and joking about the rubber bullets. The officers indicated they thought the camera was not recording.
Maglione also criticized Ratlieff for going to the news media and for not speaking to internal affairs investigators about the injuries she suffered.
“To date, Ms. Ratlieff has given numerous media interviews and made many public statements, but has yet to meet with us to give a formal statement for our investigation,” Maglione had said. “Our officers reached out numerous times to her after the incident and later extended the invitation through Ms. Ratlieff’s attorneys.”
Mayor Dean Trantalis has expressed similar sentiments.
“I called her the day after the event and tried to reach out to her about her medical care and her story. They said she couldn’t talk,” he told the Herald before Ratlieff’s congressional appearance. “I saw her on CNN the next day. It looked like she was able to talk.”
On Thursday, Trantalis said no one had “criticized” Ratlieff. “I did wonder why she didn’t return my call,” he said in a text message.
In a statement, Ratlieff said she commended the city “for taking this first important step in the right direction. Fort Lauderdale needs a chief of police who is committed to bringing about the change that is needed within the department.”
Lagerbloom, the city manager, said at the news conference that a city ordinance entitled Maglione to remain in a lesser role at the department. Trantalis did not answer questions.
Maglione, who declined to be interviewed Thursday evening, became chief in December 2016, according to his departmental biography. He has been on the Fort Lauderdale police force since 1992.
The march that seems to have led to his ouster was held in downtown Fort Lauderdale to protest the death of George Floyd. While police said demonstrators started a violent conflict that began shortly before 7 p.m., the Herald reviewed dozens of photos and hours of video footage and did not find evidence that was the case.
The first documented instance of violence came when Officer Steven Pohorence shoved a kneeling protester in the face. That ignited a conflict between police and the crowd that took over downtown streets for two hours, a Herald investigation found. Pohorence has been suspended without pay and charged with misdemeanor battery.
Herald reporters present during the march saw police shoot Ratlieff and wrote a detailed account of the incident.
“We take this really very seriously,” Vice Mayor Steven Glassman, who supports the decision to remove Maglione, said Thursday. “We have an inclusive city. We have a diverse city.”
Glassman also said the city plans to bring in an outside consultant to audit the police department and its policies.
Christina Currie, chairwoman of the Fort Lauderdale Citizens’ Police Review Board, said the department needs “widespread change.”
“I am confident that this removal will serve as the first of many steps to elevate the reputation of both our City and the Police Department,” Currie said. “At this time I think a national search for a new command staff is the best method to ensure we see major changes in culture of the department.”