"Chuck Drago, a veteran Broward police officer, is considered a local expert on stalking."
– Miami Herald
For a C.V. please call Chuck at 407-473-8033.
By Al Ortenzo and Chuck Drago
as originally appeared in Police and Security News, Nov/Dec 1995
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department recently unleashed a new weapon in the fight against some of the most serious of the violent crimes confronting law enforcement today. The “Threat Abatement Group” (also known as the “TAG Team”) was established to proactively address the growing problems of domestic violence, stalking, violence in the workplace, and other incidents involving victims threatened with a high potential for, or escalation of, criminal aggression.
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department TAG Team is one of only a handful of such units in the country totally committed, designed, and prepared to aggressively seek out and respond to victims of potential or anticipated crimes. The option has traditionally been to wait for a more serious offense to occur which is often an aggravated battery or homicide. Indeed, this unit is considered a battery/homicide prevention mechanism, something generally viewed in the past as outside the crime prevention capabilities of law enforcement. The Fort Lauderdale Police TAG Team considers many of its cases examples of successful homicide prevention and offers as its proof live bodies.
The TAG Team is comprised of two investigators assigned to the homicide squad who are selected and motivated by an interest in preventing homicides and other serious crimes as opposed to solving them after they have happened. They are challenged by the prospect of discovering and interrupting an evolving “crime in progress,” something outside the typical reactive criminal investigation done in these offense areas. The TAG Team employs an incident-threat assessment process, training, and close contact with patrol officers, referral agencies, and the public. Their objective is to recognize the potential dangers “flagged” in certain incidents and to develop a plan to prevent (abate) the likely criminal events.
There are tragic incidents every day in communities around the country involving single or multiple homicides or homicide-suicides that could have been prevented. We know, and commonly find, that an estranged spouse or dejected employee turned homicide or battery culprit has left a trail of signals to the victim and others (including the police) prior to committing their violent act. Minor events such as verbal or written threats, vandalism, or excessive behaviors often individually escape close scrutiny, but together they may indicate an obsessive mind-set with a strong propensity toward violence. Typical crime analysis and case management reviews do not target such cases which require specialized training and analytical abilities.
One of the most important functions of TAG investigators is to establish a productive working relationship with victims of progressive minor offenses. It is important that they know law enforcement considers their problem important and that a mechanism does exist to effectively deal with it. Very often, victims who report one or two minor incidents of domestic violence or threats will discontinue doing so. The absence of proactive follow-up leads them to believe that their reports have been found unworthy of police action and may even serve to reaffirm some false sense of safety. The “missing reports” often involve the incidents that serve as key indicators of serious trouble ahead.
Part of the TAG concept involves a special “TAG telephone line” to the police department’s communications division. The telephone number for this special phone is issued to only those priority victims identified by the TAG Team as high threat risk cases. The number is not published for general use by the public, or for domestic violence, stalking, etc. incident reporting.
This number, issued only by one of the TAG Team investigators, allows victims or potential victims to make quick, direct, and priority contact with the communications division. Telephone operators will be briefed on specific methods of dealing with these calls intended to report in-progress activity deemed to be significant to the case or of high risk by the TAG investigator.
What might have been a normal call-prioritized response to a “routine” call of a prowler or ongoing domestic abuse may in fact be handled as a serious in-progress crime with, in certain cases, a code response. In every instance, the TAG Team investigator will be notified of the incident call.
The homicide squad sergeant in the Fort Lauderdale system is the supervisor of the TAG Team. This is the area in which aggravated assaults and batteries, domestic violence, stalking, and other related incidents have traditionally been handled. By operating within this unit, proper communication and sufficient interaction between the various detectives is insured. This system allows for a singular supervisory review process of cases that may move in or out of the “jurisdiction” of the TAG Team.
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department has employed a civilian “victim advocate” for many years. This specialist works closely with victims and assures that whatever financial, psychological, medical, or other assistance is available, is offered to those in need. While the victim advocate is not specifically assigned to the TAG Team, she is utilized extensively in conjunction with their work. Referrals to support organizations, such as Women in Distress and others, can be coordinated by this office. The threat abatement investigators are trained in threat management, domestic violence, and stalking. They are responsible for case review and selection and for all of the follow-up investigative work. They not only act as the law enforcement contact for victims, but they serve as the lead investigator assigned to resolve the threat risk. They may be involved in informal counseling and referral, but are charged primarily with the responsibility of making a successful criminal case against the offender.
Every possible resource and tactic is utilized to successfully impact these crimes, both in general and in specific instances. The general strategy includes:
1. Law enforcement officers throughout the department receive training in domestic violence and stalking. They must understand the scope and seriousness of these problems and of the laws and procedures for proper handling. Increasingly, police officers are being provided with enhanced authority to make arrests for nonview misdemeanor offenses in domestic violence cases. In Florida, and other states, there are specific instances in which police officers are required to make arrests.
2. Patrol officers working the road must be more aware of the threat assessment factors so they can alert TAG Team investigators to cases demanding immediate attention. They must also be trained to ask the proper questions and to properly document important facts in their reports.
3. Patrol officers and other investigators must be properly trained on the scope and purpose of the TAG Team and of the TAG telephone line so that the system is used to its fullest potential and as efficiently as possible.
4. The crime analysis unit will receive reports of complaints and incidents and will, through computer analysis, collate information packages on potential TAG cases. They will also search department records for any reports of incidents that may relate to either the victim or suspect.
5. TAG Team investigators will utilize accepted threat assessment techniques and determine the appropriate action which would consist of the following alternatives:
a) Counseling (Victim and/or perpetrator will be directed to a support group for intervention.);
b) Restraining order from the courts;
c) Electronic monitoring bracelet from the courts via probation/parole if so legally applied;
d) Arrest; or
e) Further Investigation utilizing techniques such as electronic or physical surveillance.
Certainly one of the most valuable tools to the Fort Lauderdale Police TAG Team is the comprehensive anti-stalking law contained in Florida statutes. Suspects in potential serious crimes, escalating domestic violence, or engaged in stalking are targeted for quick arrest. Any and all past criminal acts and parole/probation status is checked, verified, and utilized to their fullest potential. Warrants for even minor offenses are pursued vigorously. A quick arrest not only gets the offender off the street (even if for a short period of time) but with proper interviewing may discourage further acts. Close surveillance may generate an arrestable offense to serve this purpose. Directed law enforcement action by other appropriate law enforcement personnel (i.e., vice or narcotics) may provide the needed assistance and fugitive personnel are utilized to quickly locate the suspect when a warrant does exist or is developed.
While the traditional measurements of investigative productivity (clearances, arrests, prosecutions) will remain important, we have found nothing more satisfying than the proactive and preventative work of our Fort Lauderdale TAG Team.
Al Ortenzo is a major and the Investigative Bureau Commander for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. Major Ortenzo has served with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department for twenty years in various assignments throughout the investigative, operations, and support bureaus. He is also a past member of DEA CENTAC. In addition, Mr. Ortenzo is Director of Investigators Drug School which has provided advanced in-service drug training to thousands of law enforcement officers around the U.S.
Chuck Drago is a captain and recently completed an assignment as the Homicide Unit Supervisor.