Police in Florida have been luring big-money drug buyers to a small suburban town from across the United States and as far north as Canada, negotiating sales of cocaine in popular restaurants and then arresting the buyers and confiscating their cash and cars.
According to a six-month investigation by the Sun Sentinel, undercover detectives in Sunrise, Fla., seized millions of dollars from the drug stings, offering cash rewards for the confidential informants who help police attract faraway buyers, including paying one informant more than $800,000 over the past five years.
The paper’s investigation has led the police department to stop the cocaine stings, with Mayor Michael Ryan, who supports the police work, blaming the Sun Sentinel for exposing the department’s strategies and compromising the undercover work.
In announcing the end to the program, Ryan did not address the huge overtime payments the police earned, or the expensive incentives rewarding a network of secret informants, the paper reported. In one instance, a sergeant running the stings collected more than $240,000 in overtime during a three-and-a-half year period.
In a review of payroll data, the Sun Sentinel found a dozen narcotics officers since 2010 have collectively earned $1.2 million in overtime pay.
Police in Sunrise have been conducting what are known as “reverse stings” for years, according to the Sun Sentinel, and over the past two years have netted $5.8 million in seized money.
"They can take their cars, jewelry," Sun Sentinel reporter Megan O’Matz, who broke the story with colleague John Maines, told ABC News. "One fella told us a cop said, 'Hey, I like the sunglasses you're wearing,' and snatched them, so there is a real profit motive for the police."
According to the story by Maines and O’Matz, the Sunrise suburb is hauling in three times as much forfeited by any other city in Broward and Palm Beach counties. The next-biggest haul for the 2011-2012 period was the $1.8 million seized by Fort Lauderdale.
Since 2009, according to the Sun Sentinel report, Sunrise has arrested at least 190 people on cocaine-trafficking charges. That is more than any other municipality in the county. Only seven of those arrested lived in Sunrise.
“Sunrise is extraordinary in the amount of cases they produce,” Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Martin Roth told the paper. “That might be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.”
The seized money buys new guns, radios, protective gear, computers, training and other crime-fighting expenses for the police department.
"In my view, it’s all about the money,” Roth said.
Sunrise police leaders disagree.
“Our job is to put bad guys in jail, and we do a good job of it,” Criminal Investigations Capt. Robert Voss, who oversees the Sunrise Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics Division, said in an interview with the paper earlier this year.
The Sunrise Police Department declined to answer any further questions in an email to the Sun Sentinel.