A WHITE PAPER ON MIAMI BEACH POLICE DEPARTMENT REFORM
November 30, 2011
People who live and work on the south end of the City of Miami Beach, known as South Beach, believe they have a serious problem with the Miami Beach Police Department. The department has been doing a good job handling major crimes actually reported. Nevertheless, the City of Miami Beach, unbeknown to tourists and residents alike, has one of the highest crime rates of cities under 100,000 in population in the United States, in recent years scoring as high as the third most dangerous city of that size in the country. Greater Miami and its beaches have 12 million or more visitors every year. Many of the crimes in South Beach are perpetrated by criminals visiting from other, high-crime areas of Miami Dade County and nearby counties. Perhaps more than half of the crowd attracted by South Beach’s ethnic nightclubs on any given night has a criminal record. In any event, the residents and merchants of South Beach are wholly dissatisfied with the Department’s prosecution of lesser crimes, especially with enforcement of quality-of-life ordnances.
Unfortunately, the performance of the police department may appear to be far better or worse than it is because the Miami Beach City Commission, according to the information we have been able to obtain from city officials, relies on inadequate statistics provided by City Manager Jorge Gonzalez to make its policy decisions, and often ignores anecdotal information provided by members of the public, or placates the public with public hearings that have minimal results.
The City Manager regularly provides the commission with a copy of Part I of the Uniform Crime Report, which is a mandatory summary of information that the police department provides to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and then becomes part of the national F.B.I. reporting system. Eight so-called index crimes are reported in the summary: murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Although useful, the UCR has been deemed inadequate to fully assess police performance and prevent crime. In the late 1970s, the law enforcement community evaluated the UCR program and recommended a reporting program now dubbed the National Incident-Based Reporting System, a program that collects data on each crime occurrence and sorts the data on 46 specific crimes into 22 offense categories. Total incidents in these categories would be of enormous interest to the public in the City of Miami Beach and would enable the City Commission to make reasonable policy decisions on law enforcement performance and personnel needs. For example, the categories included simple assault, drug violations, liquor violations, curfew violations, loitering, disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, runaways, prostitution, vagrancy, and more. Until the NIBRS is up and running on a national basis, the F.B.I. receives data tapes from law enforcement agencies that participate, and that data is sorted into information provided in a “Part II” of the UCR.
Independent journalist David Arthur Walters questioned City Manager Jorge Gonzalez in person at a meeting of the Civic Circle in February 2010, and by way of a letter dated February 27, 2010, under the heading “The Political Arithmetic of Crime.” Mr. Gonzalez was then involved in negotiations with the police union, and was insisting that the police department was sufficiently staffed, citing recent crime statistics reports. In response to Mr. Walters’ several questions, he provided him with the Part I UCR report that he regularly gives the City Commission along with a summary statement to the effect that all was well. Mr. Walters had objected at the Civic Circle meeting that things were seemingly unwell when people were getting raped, robbed, and stabbed all his neighborhood—known as “Seventh Heaven” from its crack history and currently as “The Toilet” for complete lack of enforcement of dog waste laws—in the vicinity of wall-to-wall nightclubs two blocks from famed Ocean Drive. Such incidents were largely unreported by the only major daily paper, the Miami Herald, which purportedly has a friendly relation with the city’s power elite naturally interested in tourism. Mr. Walters had asked if NIBRS data was being collected and reported by the police department, to what extent could the police department data base be queried, and other questions:
“Before making a query, I would like to know what fields are available so that my query will be relevant. Do you have any studies available on the relationship between Miami Beach factors such as average age of population, liquor license density, and race, and the crime rate? Finally, in respect to the urban legend or myth that the media cooperates with the city in suppressing information about serious crime on the beach, in particular, the South District, are you in favor of implementing an online crime-reporting system, updated at least weekly, and including a brief description of each crime reported e.g. ‘woman beaten and raped by two assailants in the alley behind the Meridian Market,’ so that the public will not have to speculate about what happened in their neighborhoods?”
Mr. Gonzalez did not respond, other than providing the Part I UCR report, despite repeated follow ups. Mr. Walters referred to the matter to the mayor several commissioners, including a personal letter to Commission Michael Gongora (copy below). They did not respond. A public records request was made on the City Clerk for all information appertaining to crime statistics reported to the City Commission. Only Part I of the UCR was provided. More recently, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that Florida is one of only five or less states that do not participate in the incident-based reporting program. The initial resistance to the institution of the NIBRS was that recordkeeping would have to be done at the expense of law enforcement. In any event, F.B.I. literature states that nonparticipation by states in NIBRS does not preclude local agencies from providing information to the F.B.I. We have contacted the F.B.I. for an interview on the matter.
At this time, based on the information and the lack thereof provided by public officials, people are left to presume that the City Commission and the public is making policy decisions in respect to the police power in the dark, so to speak, without the benefit of incident-based reports, the reason being that Mr. Gonzalez is receiving and cares only about Part I of the UCR, which he turns over to the commission with his usual positive comments, playing down negative changes. [Subsequent to the release of this paper, an internal source who asked around said that some incident-based information was believed to have been provided to Mr. Gonzalez, and that he presumably shared it with the commission, but exactly what information was provided or how specific it was is unclear].
The Miami Beach Police Department’s image has been marred lately by several incidents, blown way out of proportion by the press, which has apparently become disenchanted with its conduct now that the tourism industry is threatened. Of course we all may have some bone to pick with law enforcement and its lacks. Not only do police officers represent the authorities whom we may have cause to dislike or even love to hate whether or not the officers are at fault, certain concerned parties in South Beach have special axes to grind over the department’s deficient public relations, media relations, and neighborhood resources staff: e.g. media relations staff do not bother to respond to questions at all unless presented by mainstream media, and then good questions are perceived attacks on the department; neighborhood resources staff do not respond to email and phone calls unless the inquirer is perceived as an important person, most likely a merchant, suggestions are perceived as attacks on the department, and duties described on the department website are denied as existing. The deficiency is unsurprising in view of the fact that police departments have good reason to be paranoid no matter what they do.
In any event, certain facts are undeniable whether or not the public finds them objectionable in themselves:
1. First of all, the press disclosed that a few police officers were earning nearly a quarter-million dollars per annum with overtime. The high wages were credited to a shortage of police officers, which the City Manager, beset with budgetary woes, naturally denied. Furthermore, some officers appeared astonished by the figures; apparently the overtime largess was unevenly distributed. Still, Miami Beach residents were not unduly perturbed by the numbers, and some even declared that the officers deserved to be well rewarded for their contribution.
2. A former resident who returned to South Beach as a tourist and decided to revisit the notorious gay cruising zone in Flamingo Park was arrested when he called 911 one night to complain that an officer was kicking an alleged “park pervert”—someone who deviates from what is considered morally correct in the park. A merchant in the area, who did not want to be identified, said that policemen had behaved crudely on his premises, alarming his employees and customers. He said that several years ago the police department had hired men from small towns who were unsophisticated and did not appreciate homosexual customs. We observe here that the police department on the whole is not homophobic since the Police Athletic League youth gym in the park was scandalized because it is managed by a former gay porn star, yet did not fire the man. And the enforcement of ordinances in the park is notoriously lax: unauthorized beer guzzling and marijuana use is tolerated around the handball courts much favored by Mayor Bower’s late husband, Richard Bower. And the tennis court managers and tennis pros, according to a complaint filed with city authorities but not acted on, regularly smoked marijuana in the park; the City Manager’s office did not conduct drug testing as required by contract. However that may be, the public harping on police brutality towards a gay man in the park by the Village Voice’s counter-cultural rag in Miami, the New Times, created quite a stir in famously gay South Beach, where what was once counter-cultural is the predominant culture. Gays threatened to continue an exodus, a gay flight mainly to Ft. Lauderdale said to be caused by several lengthy New Times articles featuring gay-bashing coppers. Whether or not heterosexual sex acts in the public park would have been treated differently is unknown.
3. A man who had allegedly put a clothes hanger under his shirt and was swaggering along Washington Avenue, as if in Dodge City of old, in search of men who had previously stopped him from allegedly beating his female companion on the avenue was shot dead by an officer across the street from the police station after someone called in a report of a man with a concealed assault rifle. But the man had no weapon on him and was not seen, from the camera’s perspective, reaching for anything when confronted by the officer. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee immediately accused the police department of racism although the deceased was not wearing Arab robes and headdress when shot and it is incredible that he could have been instantly identified as of Arab descent. The people in South Beach are so racially mixed that it is difficult to be an accurate racist—yet still today 911 staff ask of suspects reported, “Is he black or white?” Brown or tan or grey is unacceptable. However that may be, tourists eating in a diner at the scene saw the American Arab die in front of them, nearly lost their meals or cried. The officer was involved in another shooting a few days later. The union defended him, and he was eventually discharged when he tested positive for marijuana use.
4. A suspect fleeing in a car, with which he had allegedly tried to run over officers on a crowded street during the annual Urban Week aka Black Week celebration on Memorial Day, was surrounded by officers from several police agencies when his car finally came to halt at an intersection, perhaps because he was wounded; and then he was killed by a barrage of gunfire. A gun was found several days later in his car, and it was discovered that he was wanted for shooting a victim in the head during a filling station robbery. Although a few residents privately celebrated the shooting due to the outrageous behavior of Urban Week visitors, including annual murders, the fact that innocent bystanders were wounded by the gunfire did not sit well with anyone. Furthermore, the nationally broadcast of a video of the police shooting made the incident appear to be an execution; a display deemed very bad for tourism.
5. And then there was an ATV accident where tourists were run over and seriously injured on the beach late at night by a police officer showing off to a woman he had picked up at an Ocean Drive bar while partying on duty. He was fired, and negligent supervisors were also disciplined. This was the most appalling episode of all given the scenes of a gravely injured woman in the hospital and an ensuing internal investigation that exposed considerable monkey business due to poor management. Never mind the good work done by responsible and even irresponsible cops; this was bad, very bad.
Those incidents, given the press trumpeting, more than raised eyebrows, and the many good deeds done by dedicated police officers were forgotten in the process—we never see the press, when reporting on crimes, repeat time and time again the last five great jobs police officers did. Nonetheless, the main concern of South Beach residents, their prime pet peeve, is the historical lack of enforcement of quality-of-life ordinances, especially during big events such as Urban Week, which is perceived as a massive demonstration of utter disrespect for local residents and blatant contempt for law enforcement. Yet public criticism of the drunken and disorderly conduct and disturbances of the peace perpetrated during the all-black event is roundly condemned by liberal activists as motivated by racism.
The laxity in enforcement of the code during major events is not all the fault of the MBPD, as it stands down to please City Manager Gonzalez, who has served at the pleasure of the City Commission for over a decade. Mr. Gonzalez has extraordinary power given the fact that the part-time commissioners rely on him to keep on top of the city as a whole. He deserves ample credit for managing new developments over the last ten years, yet he deserves criticism for neglecting the oversight of certain functions delegated to old cronies. The City Commission has addressed the permissive lack of enforcement of minor ordinances by holding hearings on the issue and making the usual decision, not to do much about it for fear of losing tourist revenue.
A so-called town meeting was had on the Urban Week issue. The infamous Warren Harding/Calvin Coolidge Press Conference Method was used: any questions from the public had to be submitted in writing and approved of in advance before being addressed. Out-of-town suits were hired to come up with a plan, which is not to get rid of the event from hell but to tone it down by various means and profit from it. The plan was spoon-fed to the attendees of the carefully orchestrated town-meeting, some of whom were infuriated by the typical arrogance of the leadership. The majority of South Beach residents want to be rid of Urban Week, and would follow the example of Atlanta’s black leadership, of getting rid of it there when it was a Freaknik Spring Break event; the freakish behavior included pulling girls from cars and raping them on the hoods while the crowd cheered; massive towing was instituted to make sure the visitors knew they were unwelcome.
Another pet peeve of residents for many years is the permissive attitude towards the derelicts and panhandlers who pervade the streets, whose presumably homeless status entitles them to sympathy but not to a job or involuntary rehabilitation. The city responds to homeless people in various ways. The city shut down a South Beach shelter in an upcoming neighborhood, and has condemned a few flophouses to make way for gentrification, worsening the prospects for the poor and indigent. On the other hand, the city has provided the means for renovating an old building for eventual inhabitation by “formerly homeless” persons, and for renovating a couple of other buildings for affordable housing. A Commissioner has said that, as far as he was concerned, there should be no more low-cost housing on the beach. Many servants take busses from the mainland, travelling four hours per day.
Paperless workers at luxury establishments prefer to stay on the beach, where they are less likely to be picked up and deported. They tend to cram themselves into small studios in ghetto-like South Beach buildings, paying cash to no-questions-asked slumlords. At one point a building financed by the City was chock full of undocumented workers. Illegal immigrants are tolerated but silently resented by many South Beach residents, especially so by immigrants who complied with the law to enter the country to work and/or to obtain citizenship. Citizens and aliens with green cards recently complained that “the Italians” were bringing illegals in from Guatemala to place them in the kitchens of luxury hotels at low cash wages, getting rid of the legal workers or reducing their wages. That information was reported to local law enforcement and to Homeland Security in Washington but apparently no investigation was conducted or the complaints were deemed warrantless although the kitchens are filled with undocumented workers. Needless to say, the illegal workforce in South Beach contributes to unemployment of citizens and to homelessness, as well as to the crime rate since persons may be fleeing their countries because they are wanted for crimes; for example, the man who stabbed his wife 17 times in a South Beach tenement for illegal immigrants was wanted for murder back home.
In any case, the city will do its best to direct people to food and shelter, and has a team that “reaches out” to vagrants. Some of them obviously need another kind of assistance. For example, the man called The Masturbator, who was reached out to after he was seen masturbating on the street; he was back on the street with a new T-shirt and pants the next day. He is one of several colorful characters that provide South Beach with a bad image; but that is a good image to some; e.g. a commissioner during hearings on an anti-panhandling ordinance said that tourists who come “down here” do so because they enjoy such sights.
The most frequent complaint one hears in Miami Beach is not with the police department in particular but overall, with the politically powerful elite. Everyone outside of the civic clique agrees that the city is run by arrogant old cronies. That arrogance is partly due to the indifference of the electorate to most political issues and an individualism that precludes community participation. Your average man and woman on the street do not know the name of the mayor not to mention the city manager’s name. A candidate only needs 3,500 votes to be elected to sit on the commission. Most voters are older folks who back the choices of their neighborhood associations, which themselves are run by so-called arrogant old cronies. When an incumbent candidate before the last election was asked about getting young people interested enough to vote, she flatly said, “I don’t need them.”
Matti Bower, the present mayor, served as a commissioner for a number of years. The mayor presides over the commissioners as an equal, and the other commissioners usually serve part time while maintaining their professions and businesses. That leaves the handsome and suave professional city manager, “Boss” Gonzalez, in charge. It is difficult to break in to the system and become a member of the civic clique. One may attend his leadership academy, for example, and learn how to keep one’s nose to the rear of the camel ahead. In any event, one must behave appropriately for a long time to rise to the top of the pyramid.
An alternate route is to become an “activist”, a pejorative term for anyone who complains a lot about the system or who has questions and suggestions deemed to be complaints. Former Mayor David Dermer, a traffic ticket lawyer, was elected because of his activism against high-rise construction, which accelerated after he was elected and consorted with real estate developers. Mayor Bower, a dental hygienist, is his hand-picked successor. She was known while on the commission for her sympathy for the poor working class. People have been generally disappointed by her conduct since she became mayor, but she was re-elected, anyway, as that is how the Miami Beach system works short of concerted activism.
That being said, the police department ruckus has gotten the attention of thousands of residents, workers, and merchants, and presents a growing threat to the status quo. Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega, who has served as a police officer for 27 years, must retire by December 31, 2011, pursuant to his participation in an optional deferred retirement program. His second in command, Raymond Martinez, is presumably favored by City Manager Gonzalez, who is charged with conducting the candidate search, to replace him. But commissioners are reportedly losing their faith in Mr. Gonzalez and may prefer to confirm the appointment of an outsider. Miami Mirror correspondent David Arthur Walters addressed the city manager, asking if the public might recommend a particular candidate; he did not respond.
In November 2011 fifty people, half of them “activists,” the others police department staff, aides to commissioners, excepting Ed Tobin, who is overtly critical of the police department, and representatives of the neighborhoods, attended an event, organized by Officer Deborah Doty, pitching Mr. Martinez as the new chief. Apparently the invitees were carefully selected since many people concerned with policing were not alerted; evidently anyone interested had to scour a city website for information on upcoming events if not alerted by the event organizer.
A change was announced, a sectional policing program that had been tried three years ago, according to a new philosophy purportedly adopted without changing officers. Captain Mark Causey, the South Beach officer who is known for his good relationship with the public, whom police officers on the beat advise to call instead of the media relations and neighborhood resource staff if they want something done right away, handled the presentation.
Critics of the “new” plan complained that the concept was nothing new, would not be effective, and was fluff presented as part of a campaign to solicit support for Mr. Martinez’ expected candidacy for the office of police chief, which he would probably obtain through the usual old crony way of doing things.
Mr. Walters, who said he was not invited to the meeting, said that there should in fact be periodic, open political campaigns for the top position at the police department.
“The top office should be held by an elected official, a police commissioner to whom the chief must answer. That approach is the only democratic way for the public to render the police department directly accountable to the public given the old crony system where important decisions are made behind the scenes prior to a pretense of considering public input at hearings and meetings. I say it is democratic although liberals tend to dismiss the concept as right-wing because the public in crime ridden areas beg to have the laws enforced, and it is feared that stricter enforcement of criminal codes will gain winning votes for conservatives.”
He submitted a suggestion (copy below) to that effect, to Mayor Bower, with copies to the city commissioners, top police brass and the police department’s media office, the Miami Herald and the Sunpost. He asked Mayor Bower, City Manager Gonzalez, and City Commissioner Michael Gongora for their comments on his suggestion. They did not respond. His suggestion was not mentioned in press reports of alternative solutions suggested for improved policing.
“My suggestion was not bizarre at all,” said Mr. Walters, “and would be seriously considered by any progressive community. We have enjoyed elected sheriffs, as well as elected police chiefs over major cities, in this country. Our mother country, Great Britain, is far ahead of us on this major issue, as it is in the regulation of the legal profession—but that is another matter. The policy change, that is, elected police commissioners, in Great Britain, is the brainchild of leading political thinkers Dan Hannen and Douglas Carwell. Beginning November 2012, Brits will elect local police commissioners based on local manifestos for addressing crime. The Miami Beach City Manager and City Commission is not doing the job the public wants done, does not give a hoot what people such as myself might think or suggest, and the police department is wrongly scapegoated for much of the deficiency.”
November 5, 2011
Mayor Matti Bower
CITY OF MIAMI BEACH
Miami Beach, Florida 33139
Subject: Elected Police Commissioner
Congratulations on your easy re-election to office.
I petition you to begin a dialogue on my general suggestion that the City of Miami Beach should have an elected Police Commissioner to whom the Police Chief answers, and who sits on the City Commission. It is my belief that such a structure would allow residents to have a better voice in police affairs, something that is, in my opinion, sorely needed.
Many residents, not understanding that our Police Department is a top-down command structure whose Police Chief answers to the City Manager, who in turn answers to the City Commission, blame police officers on the street and their commanders for lax enforcement of the laws even when it is not their fault because orders have come down to go easy on minor violators in order to cultivate South Beach’s image as a wild, hedonistic destination.
That permissive attitude has had its commercial benefits but at considerable cost in terms of dollars and human dignity. For one thing it has cultivated disrespect for law and law enforcement officers, and contempt for the residents of South Beach, and has attracted perpetrators of major crimes to the area. For instance, we have had several shootings, involving individuals armed or pretending to be armed, swaggering down Washington Avenue as if South Beach were in Dodge City of old. And one man beat a tourist to death on the sidewalk in front of a pool hall as a crowd stood by; one of them took a video of the event and posted it on the Internet, an advertisement that will attract more ruffians to the city. I need not go on as you are well aware of the plethora of crimes committed, in part due to a lack of appreciation by city leaders for the validity of the Broken Windows and Monkey See Monkey Do hypotheses.
Another major issue is the internal management of the Police Department itself. I personally believe, from my recent experiences living in the South Beach ghetto known as “Seventh Heaven,” and by comparing my many experiences there to old reports of ineffectiveness, that we have an effective police force despite its failings. It disturbs me to see the media, especially the Miami Herald, harp on the perceived faults of the Department and a few of its officers while not reporting or reporting and quickly forgetting the good things that have been done by officers of the law to keep the peace.
Unfortunately for the residents of Miami Beach as a whole, a very small minority of them vote, the majority of them old-timers over 50, even when a majority of the population including visitors voice complaints, for example, about lax enforcement of laws. Hence it only takes a few thousand votes to win the office of mayor or commissioner; most of them living away from the fray; that is not conducive to making the elected leaders accountable when their hearts are not with “the People.”
You had a reputation on the Commission for having your heart in the right place. It occurs to me that if all our public servants had their heart in that place, we would all be better off.
It is with that in mind that I hope to hear from you in the near future about getting a dialogue going on the subject of whether or not we should have an elected police commissioner for the City of Miami Beach. Of course, as a journalist I would like to have your comments pro or con on the suggestion, as well as the City Manager’s, as that would lend my upcoming report more weight.
David Arthur Walters
Officer Deborah Doty
Media Relations Officer
MIAMI BEACH POLICE DEPARTMENT
March 12, 2010
Michael Gongora, Commissioner
CITY OF MIAMI BEACH
Miami Beach, Florida 331139
Re: City Manager's Regular Crime Reports to the City Commission
As you know, I have inquired of the City Manager as to what crime statistics are available, and all I have received thus far from his office is the F.B.I. Part I Offenses Uniform Crime Report made to the Commission, which led me to question him, without response yet, as to whether that is all the information he provides to the City Commission on a regular basis.
I would be astonished if that were in fact all the data provided to our policy makers for their decision-making process, and suppose that he would also regularly submit the Part II UCR, including data which would be of special interest to law-abiding South Beach residents, such as Simple Assault, Weapons carrying, Prostitution, Drug Law Violations, Driving Under the Influence, Disorderly Conduct, Public Drunkenness and the like.
I also (mistakenly) referred to City Manager to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which might be helpful to the Commission by way of comparison to the UCR, but is a national and not a local survey. I meant to say the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which provides statistics on lots more crimes, and, I believe, distinguishes between attempted and completed crimes, gives the resident status of victims and arrestees, whether arrestees are armed, alcohol and drug use, the kind and quantity of drugs involved, and other useful information that we sometimes see in the press.
No doubt our Police Department is collecting a great deal of information locally that could be so organized into regular public reports via the Internet—that would be useful not only locally but to interested people all over the world [potential tourists].
As it is, the buzz on the street is that demand for police services is way up, which is putting a great deal of pressure on supply.
Almost everyone I speak with has respect for our police officers, and say that the quality of law enforcement here has improved enormously over the years. However, it appears that political policies in respect to South Beach of late actually encourage the growth of crime factors, and, I hear, make it ripe ground for organized crime—something I know nothing about. I do know that to be seen in some of the clubs suffices to give one a bad reputation nowadays.
David Arthur Walters
Subsequent Notes : 1) I have been amazed by the number of people I subsequently met who expressed utter contempt and hatred for police officers, sometimes for no apparent reason at all, including a neighbor who was on probation for assaulting an officer, and who, when drunk, could talk of nothing but how he wanted to kill police officers. 2) The remark about bad reputations gained from being seen in South Beach clubs is facetious: Mr. Gongora had gotten one for that very reason. (November 30, 2011)