by Brent Batten
Naples Daily News
August 6, 2015
The good news is an investigation may come out of the Boss Hogg-like handling of a Marco Island noise complaint in March.
The bad news is, the wrong thing is being investigated.
Marco Island Police Chief Al Schettino has sicced the State Attorney’s Office on whoever copied and circulated a draft of a police report describing the incident using details that have proved uncomfortable for the department.
State Attorney spokeswoman Samantha Syoen declined to say whether the office is taking up the probe, but whether it is or isn’t, the Marco Island City Council missed an even greater affront to public procedures at its meeting Monday evening.
Evidence of the offense was placed at the council’s feet not by some axe-grinding malcontent but by Schettino himself, who in reciting the facts of the noise complaint and the events it set in motion unwittingly indicted himself in actions that should have made councilors’ ears perk up and neck hairs stand on end.
The chief described how he directed an officer to cite a renter for a noise violation, regardless of whether the officer found a violation or not. How he was willing to accept the word of one complainant — who happens to be a city council member — as proof, contrary to what noise experts and other police agencies view as acceptable. How stereotype was allowed to substitute for evidence.
And how corroboration of the violation came not from his officers but from a neighbor — who spoke up four months later.
After hearing all of that, City Council Chairman Larry Sacher offered, “Thank you chief. Thank you for your candor.”
The community does owe Schettino thanks for his candor, if for no other reason than it shed light on an operation that on at least this one occasion paid no heed to the concepts of probable cause, equal treatment under the law and rules of evidence.
Faced with such admissions, the council members could have asked for an independent investigation into this and other incidents in which Councilman Joe Batte appears to have directed or unduly influenced staff, in violation of the city charter.
After hearing from members of the public calling for a probe and a convoluted discussion among themselves, four of the five council members present voted not to conduct one.
During a 20-minute rendition of the events that began with a pair of March 10 noise complaints from Batte about neighbors across the canal from his home, Schettino described telling an officer,
“Go to 300 Capistrano Court, investigate the incident and issue the occupant a noise citation.”
What if there’s no noise? the officer asked. “I firmly said, raising my voice, ‘You can’t tell me that there are approximately 30 kids renting a house in a residential neighborhood and there’s no noise, on spring break,’” Schettino said.
As improbable as a quiet spring break party may be, it isn’t impossible. Nor is it appropriate for the police to prejudge a complaint before even leaving the station.
Police in Naples and Fort Myers both agreed they would not issue a citation based on a complaint, or even a couple of complaints, from a single neighbor.
Experts in the field say an officer’s verification is the norm before a citation is issued. If the violator proves adept at turning the volume down before police arrive, the complainant can always record the episode, preferably multiple episodes, to provide proof, said Rick Holtsclaw, a retired Houston policeman who focused on noise issues.
He’s now with Noise Free America, a lobbying group that helps communities craft workable noise laws. “If I was the officer responding to the scene in this scenario, I would certainly want evidence confirming the assertion of a violation and I would NOT take action until that is evidence is provided,” he said.
Bob Andres is a consultant who works with police departments, including Naples’ a few years back, on noise enforcement. “My experience is unless the officer witnesses the problem they are very reluctant to issue a citation,” he said.
Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America, said a citation based on a single complaint and no other evidence is outside accepted practice. “Usually the police insist on their own verification.” Multiple simultaneous complaints from different witnesses might allow an officer to issue a citation without hearing the violation firsthand, Rueter added
Schettino on Monday did describe a corroborating witness to the high jinks on Capistrano Court. The problem is, the witness came forward on July 23, after the first news accounts appeared on the topic, to swear to the March 10 events. Asked Tuesday about the number of noise citations issued by Marco police based on a single citizen’s say so, Schettino did not respond.
Also on Tuesday the city’s volunteer audit committee voted to recommend the council reconsider bringing in an outside investigator.
While some argued such a recommendation is outside the committee’s mission, co-chairman Jim Conway called the controversy a political football that distracts from serious issues facing the island.
Only an independent investigation will show whether Batte violated the charter and whether staff acted properly in accommodating his requests, the advisers reasoned, adding they aren’t seeking a particular outcome.