Fruitland Park is a small town aways northwest of Orlando. Only about 5,000 people call the town home, though the area has experienced some pretty expansive growth in the past few years. Unfortunately, the town of Fruitland Park has also had it's problems with bad publicity. Earlier in the week, a story began circulating that two members of the police department had been outed by the FBI as active members of the Ku Klux Klan. The incident is a harsh reminder of the town's history, and its long road to change.
When Fruitland Park Police Chief Terry Isaacs heard that two of his officers, Deputy Chief David Borst and Officer George Hunnewell, were actively involved in the Ku Klux Klan, he was shocked. "One of these officers was my assistant … you could have knocked me over with a feather, I just never would have dreamed it. I don't know him privately, but I work with him every day, he was in the office next to me. I was just not expecting that," Isaacs explains over the phone, adding, "I guess that's why they call them secret organizations."
This isn't the first time that the Fruitland Park Police Department has addressed similar allegations. In 2009, Officer James Elkins resigned after photos surfaced of him wearing a KKK uniform. At the time, then-police chief Mark Isom stated firmly, "I can guarantee you that none of my police officers who work here are members of the KKK."
According to the ex-wife of George Hunnewell, Ann, she and her ex-husband were asked by Chief Isom in 2008 to join the KKK in order to find out if another officer at the department was a member. There is no documentation to support these claims, though the timing would seem to match up with Elkins' resignation.
It would appear that former Chief Isom is unable to corroborate these because he was let go early in 2010 after it was discovered he was "receiving $80 a month in state money as a result of two fake college degrees." The Chief was also the subject of an ethics investigation at the time. He offered to resign his post if the investigation was dropped.
It was into these circumstances that Terry Isaacs, a 30-year veteran of Florida law enforcement, accepted the position as Chief of the Fruitland Park PD. When Isaacs got the job, he says, "I promised the commission that I would take the department as is and I would work through the concerns as they surfaced."
Chief Isaacs' time at the helm hasn't been easy. From the moment he took office, he set about to completely overhaul the department. "We just totally went through this department from top to bottom doing every change I know to do away with anything that reminds us of those past years."
Isaacs explains that, of the 13 full-time officers who were working for him when he took the job, 10 have since been replaced. "Some just didn't want to work with me, some I confronted and they chose just to go elsewhere, some I've literally removed from office. The fact is, ten of the original thirteen are gone."
Former Chief Isom's silence in the wake of these newest occurrences has been telling. When you consider the extensive vetting process required by his department, it seems unlikely that a member of the Klan could fly under the radar. Every candidate has their fingerprints run through the FBI. Potential officers are also forced to undergo a rigorous background check that involves canvassing the candidate's neighborhood and talking to friends, family, neighbors and former employers. When a recruit is pulled from one of Florida's police academies (as is the case with most of Fruitland Park's officers), there's even an extra stage of interviews involved in getting the job.
Incoming officers are also required to fill out a questionnaire about themselves. These answers are then verified with a polygraph test. Even after they're hired, new hires ride with a training officer for 12 weeks. As you can imagine, over the course of a 12 hour shift, any reasonably astute person could learn quite a bit about the person sitting next to them.
In other words, the rigorous nature of the vetting process goes a long way towards eliminating anyone who is actively involved with groups the state deems violent or hateful. So, the officers in question were, at least according to Isaacs, most likely not active members of the Klan when they were hired. "If they had any contact with this organization," Isaacs says. "It happened after they were already employed here … all indications were that this occurred in the 2008-2009 area."
Slowly, but surely, though, the town is recuperating. In the three years since Chief Isaacs has taken over the department, not only has crime in the area gone down, his department has not received any complaints of racial discrimination against any of his officers. His statements (and some cursory research) would indicate this week's shocking turn of events seems to be less indicative of an ongoing issue than it is the death rattle of a bygone era.