Broward County Fla Sept 29 2011 As Broward’s sheriff, Nick Navarro was half-lawman, half-celebrity — allowing Cops TV crews to trail his deputies while launching a highly publicized obscenity crackdown against local rappers 2 Live Crew.
Out of office for almost two decades, Navarro’s controversial, colorful reputation is still one of the most famous chapters in Broward County history.
Navarro, 81, died Wednesday at home, his wife Sharron by his side. He had been suffering from colon cancer.
After being kicked out of office by Broward voters in ’92, Navarro ran a private security firm bearing his name.
But it was his eight-year tenure as Broward’s unorthodox sheriff that Navarro is most known for, thanks in part to his key role in permitting the television show Cops to film BSO deputies during its first season.
Other eyebrow-raising endeavors included Navarro ordering the arrest of rap group 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges, Navarro’s deputies cooking up their own crack cocaine to use in furtherance of drug stings, and Navarro coping with jail overcrowding by placing prisoners in a tent.
“He was on TV so much, he was on 60 Minutes,” said Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis, who co-authored a book on the BSO’s history. “For the average person, if they could name only one Broward Sheriff, they would most likely be naming Nick Navarro.”
Even before his somewhat eccentric antics, Navarro was an unlikely sheriff due solely to his party affiliation: A Republican in a staunchly Democratic county.
The Cuban-born Navarro was sworn in as Broward’s top cop on Jan. 8, 1985, and promptly told the assembled reporters “you guys in the press are going to get a lot of ink out of me.”
Navarro kept that promise — and then some. He singlehandedly turned the Broward Sheriff’s Office into a celebrity law enforcement agency by allowing Cops to film his officers making arrests. As such, it’s fair to call Navarro one of the founders of the now-widespread genre known as reality TV.
In 1988, when television producer John Langley had the idea for a show where camera crews would tag along with policemen on their daily calls, the only law-enforcement official in America willing to cooperate was Navarro. These days police departments clamor for attention from Cops — now in its 24th season on Fox.
But during that first season, the show’s production crews followed only Broward sheriff’s deputies.
“Cops is the first reality-TV series, and Nick Navarro was instrumental in launching it,” Langley said Wednesday from his office in Hollywood, Calif. “When I called to ask him about it, he just said, ‘Come on down, let the chips fall where they may.’ He had guts, he had gumption, he was intrepid.”
Langley credits Navarro with ushering in a new era of transparency in law enforcement. Navarro’s critics, however, called him a relentless self-promoter who, somewhat ironically, routinely thumbed his nose at the rule of law. Rappers 2 Live Crew were ultimately acquitted of violating obscenity charges; Navarro’s practice of cooking up crack cocaine in police labs sparked outrage; the sheriff’s tent prisons had judges furious.
“Be a good Nick,” one judge famously told Navarro. “Not a god, Nick.”
The courts also scolded Navarro for implementing unconstitutional random searches of passengers at county bus and railroad stations.
“This is not Hitler’s Berlin nor Stalin’s Moscow,’’ Circuit Judge Robert Andrews chided the sheriff.
Under Navarro’s leadership, BSO not only grew in fame, but also in outright size, as the agency doubled its personnel to 3,000 and saw its budget increase from $75 million to $200 million. BSO took over law enforcement for three Broward cities: Dania Beach, Tamarac and Deerfield Beach.
But voters had tired of Navarro’s outlandish behavior by 1992, when the sheriff was defeated in a Republican primary despite being heavily favored. Navarro at first tried to have the election results thrown out, claiming voters couldn’t get to the polls because they were still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Andrew.
Former Broward Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ron Cacciatore, a friend of Navarro who left the agency when his boss did, said Navarro was ultimately undone by the controversy surrounding the 2 Live Crew arrests and BSO’s crack-manufacturing lab. Cacciatore said the public never fully grasped that the drug lab was being used in the furtherance of arrests — people became convinced BSO was putting more drugs on the streets.
Overlooked, Cacciatore said, was the fact that BSO’s crack cocaine was deliberately made to be weaker, and its non-narcotic ingredients were “safer” than what was commonly used — just in case an addict actually took the drug before an arrest was made.
“By cooking it ourselves, we could basically quantify what was in it,” Cacciatore said.
Cacciatore remembers Navarro as a lighthearted boss who was known to invite any employee he ran into — including entry-level staff — out to lunch on a whim. Navarro had a fondness for the Swap Shop flea market, Cacciatore said, as well as Yorkshire Terrier dogs. When one of Navarro’s Yorkies died, Cacciatore received a phone call. The sheriff was in tears.
“He said it was old, and it fell in the pool,” Cacciatore said.
Current Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti expressed his admiration for the man who promoted Lamberti to chief of the Deerfield Beach Sheriff’s Office in 1989.
“It’s a sad day,’’ Lamberti said Wednesday. “All of us who had the pleasure of working for Sheriff Navarro know he was a cop’s cop. He was always on the front line.’’
Lamberti told of a time when Navarro, on his way home from a charity gala and dressed in a tuxedo, phoned in that he was in pursuit of a drunk driver, and then pulled over the offending vehicle and waited for uniformed deputies to arrive.
“He always had the people’s best interest at heart,’’ Lamberti said, echoing Navarro’s slogan, “He was the sheriff of all the people.’’
Lamberti said he visited Navarro last week at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, where the former sheriff was recovering from complications of colon cancer surgery performed the previous year.
Even in failing health, Navarro’s mind was on the agency he once led.
Lamberti said Navarro wanted him to arrange a dinner for the four most recent Broward Sheriffs, including Tom Walker, Bob Butterworth, Navarro and Lamberti, and their wives.
“He lived for the Broward Sheriff’s Office,’’ Lamberti said. “He was always the sheriff.’’
Services are pending.