Boca Police Chief Moving On, How Social Media Pushed the Panic Button at Town Center, and More

After 13 years, Boca Raton will need a new police chief.

The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday will approve the hiring of Dan Alexander to be director of the school district’s police department, reporting to Chief Frank Kitzerow. It is a new position, likely created to help the department handle its added responsibilities after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Alexander stabilized the Boca Raton Police Department when he took over in 2006. His predecessor, Andrew Scott, had drawn widespread criticism for not following procedure and allowing a prominent developer to avoid a night in jail after a domestic abuse arrest. Previously, the department went through a scandal involving doctored crime statistics.

The school district department intends to have at least one officer on every county campus, to comply with the state passed after the Parkland shooting. That has required many new hires. There also have been problems with training procedures for safety personnel at charter schools.

I’ll have more on this in my Thursday post.

Panic at Town Center Mall

Police regularly advise the public, “If you see something, say something.” On Sunday, people at Town Center Mall thought that they heard something. So they said something on social media. Over and over.

At 3:01 p.m., according to a spokesman, the Boca Raton Police Department began receiving many calls of a shooter inside the mall. People were panicking and running.

As is standard procedure after such reports, the department called for help from other agencies. The FBI, the Palm Beach and Broward sheriff’s offices and the Delray Beach Police Department responded. Within minutes, a man stumbled, bleeding, from a mall entrance. One photo made it appear that he had been shot in the chest.

At 3:55, an email from The Palm Beach Post reported that an “active shooting” was “underway.” There had been “multiple shots,” the paper quoted a “mall employee.” At least one person had been shot.

At 4:41, another email repeated the report that one person had been shot. By then, though, the police department, was saying that there was “no active shooter at this time.”

In fact, there never had been a shooter. Law enforcement officials determined that the man had been bleeding from a head wound suffered when he ran into a door while fleeing the mall.

At 7:31 p.m., though, the Post still was reporting that the man had suffered “traumatic injuries.” The man had been taken to the trauma unit at Delray Medical Center, but the injury was not traumatic.

So what happened? Police Chief Dan Alexander said, “Some noise went off with some type of bang.” At the food court, a department spokesman said, many heads turned in one direction. As of Monday, there was no conclusion about the cause of the sound. The department continues to investigate.

No one found a shell casing. Obviously, someone could have used a revolver, which does not eject shell casings. The spokesman, however, said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent a dog that is trained to detect gunshot residue and the dog detected nothing.

Social media can be a great tool for sharing information. On Sunday, it became a tool for disinformation. In these times of seemingly routine mass shootings, the reaction was understandable. People are on edge and no responsible agency would dismiss a reported threat. Officials recently scrambled after reports of a shooting at Omni Middle School.

Boca Raton police officers work at the mall, so the response was quick in all ways. The spokesman acknowledged that the department at first advised of a shooter but determined within about 20 minutes that there wasn’t one, and said so.

Still, national news reports referenced “panic” and “chaos” in Boca Raton. My brother texted Monday morning from Rhode Island about the “shooting.” And it took about five hours to clear the mall, since officers had to check every store and every possible hiding place.

The mall reopened Monday. What happened Sunday is a sign of the times. Be glad that the rumor was false.

Update

A popped balloon triggered panic Sunday at Town Center Mall.

The Boca Raton Police Department on Tuesday reported that a janitor had rolled over the balloon at about 3 p.m. To enough people, the pop sounded like a gunshot. From there, social media took it to an all-out law enforcement response.

As I wrote earlier, it’s a sign of the times.

And the terminology

 After Sunday’s incident, I wondered again about the term “active shooter.” Is there any other kind of shooter?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an “active shooter” as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Well, yeah. DHS also uses the term “active killer.” Again, could there be a passive killer?

The Boca Raton police spokesman said the term might exist to distinguish a shooting from “shots fired.” That actually is the most common call the sheriff’s office gets. Presumably, a check after such a call might determine if the shots came from an active shooter—and are still coming.

Delray Commission meeting highlights

It’s a packed agenda for this afternoon’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting. Here are some highlights:

• The commissioners will discuss whether their jobs should pay more.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia first raised this topic in August—about the time she determined that city manager candidate Michael Cernech wanted too much in compensation. She and the commissioners can’t act on their own. Voters would need to approve any raises in the March 2020 election.

Currently, the Delray Beach mayor makes about $26,000—$13,700 in salary and $6,000 for an expense account and a car allowance. Commissioners get the same expense and car money, but their salaries are about $3,400 less. All of them can get health insurance through the city.

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia

City officials surveyed other municipalities to determine where Delray Beach’s pay scale falls. By a margin of only about 80 votes in August 2016, Boca Raton voters raised the mayor’s salary to $38,000 and the council members’ salary to $28,000. All five get expense accounts of $5,400.

As in Delray Beach, Boca Raton’s elected officials also serve as the board of the community redevelopment agency. Boca Raton’s population, though, is about 50 percent larger than that of Delray Beach.

The best comparison locally is to Boynton Beach. It’s about the same size as Delray Beach. The mayor and city commissioners oversee the CRA. Total compensation for the mayor is about $31,000. For the commissioners, it’s about $26,500. None of them gets health insurance.

You will hear during discussion the idea that higher salaries attract better candidates. I’ve never seen such a correlation. Done right, these supposedly part-time jobs take lots of time. But Delray Beach, like Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, is a city manager form of government. The mayor is not an executive. Delray Beach has drawn plenty of fine candidates—and some bad ones—despite the salaries.

Perhaps Petrolia and the others deserve more because of their added duties after taking over the CRA last year. Would salaries go back down, however, if a future mayor and commission restored the appointed board?

Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Shirley Johnson might be most sensitive to the idea of putting a raise before voters in March. They also are scheduled to be on the ballot.

• Two separate items on the commission agenda may be related.

In one, the commission is appealing the unanimous approval by the Site Plan Review and Appearance Board of a makeover for Buddha Sky Bar, in the heart of East Atlantic Avenue. Among other things, the owners want to change the first floor from restaurant to retail and add a sleek, 3,000-square foot outdoor dining area on the second floor.

As the staff report notes, the decision may depend on whether the city considers Budda SkyBar to be more of a restaurant—where serving alcohol is not the primary business—or more of a bar—where alcohol is the main draw. The rules are different, depending on the classification.

Buddha Sky Bar is a very popular place. I would expect lots of discussion. Merely by appealing, the commission seems to have indicated displeasure with the SPRAB recommendation.

• Is Buddha Sky Bar a nightclub?

Buddha Sky Bar was one of several East Atlantic hangout spots complaining last spring when Delray Beach began more strictly enforcing occupancy rules. Some residents have complained that restaurants morph into nightclubs late on Friday and Saturday nights. The city does not allow nightclubs.

Fire marshals had been checking for excessive occupancy. The city had been issuing fines. Mayor Petrolia said she wanted to find the “sweet spot” between maintaining order without killing the downtown vibe. Buddha Sky Bar’s owner said he was “feeling not wanted.”

One aspect of this issue is noise. City Attorney Lynn Gelin has drafted a 15-page ordinance to regulate excessive noise throughout the city. The noisiest part of Delray Beach is East Atlantic Avenue. That ordinance goes before the commission today.

It would help city administrators when determining “whether a sound is excessive, loud or unnecessary.” One section would apply to amped-up music on East Atlantic and the two blocks north and south between Swinton Avenue and Federal Highway. That’s where you find the restaurants that focus on food early and nightlife later.

The ordinance is comprehensive, down to the volume from grass blowers. But there seems little doubt that the focus of the ordinance is downtown Delray Beach.

Match Point meeting

And before that packed regular meeting, the Delray Beach commission will meet it in private for a “discussion and strategy meeting” on the Match Point lawsuit.

To review, the commission sued Match Point—which promotes the annual pro tennis tournament—in 2016. Commissioners alleged that the company’s 25-year contract, which a previous commission approved in 2005, was invalid because the city did not seek bids. Commissioners believed that the contract was skewed too heavily toward the company.

Match Point has argued that no other company could have qualified. Therefore, it was a “sole source” contract and didn’t require competitive bidding.

A lot has happened recently. In July, the city’s outside counsel withdrew, citing “irreconciliable differences” with the city. In June, the city voluntarily dismissed one count of its complaint. In August, a Palm Beach County judge granted Match Point’s petition for summary judgment on the county that involves the bidding. G. Joseph Curley found that the 2005 deal is a personal services contract and that the commission broke no rule in approving it.

Mayor Petrolia is the only remaining member of the commission that brought the lawsuit.

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