News Commentary: Welcome to the Neighborhood

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the Third District Neighborhood Safety Walk led by the Miami Beach Police Department last Monday. Indeed, this humble scribbler from the South Beach neighborhood a mile away, known as Seventh Heaven for its crack reputation, certainly found it uplifting to mingle with the affluent South Beach residents who congregated at 1500 Ocean Drive, a luxury condominium on the high status north end of Ocean Drive, prior to strolling southwards along Ocean Drive before turning west to take a jaunt a few blocks down the historically raunchy Washington Avenue.

About twenty participants perambulated the northern end of the Third District—the Third District covers Washington Avenue to Ocean Drive, from 5th to 15th Streets. The police department was represented by Interim Police Chief Raymond Martinez, South District Captain Mark Causey, Patrol Major Angel E. Vasquez, and Officer Deborah Doty, the police department’s neighborhood liaison and media spokesperson. Katherine Martinez, Homeless Program Coordinator with the city’s Homeless Service Program attended to respond to homeless issues, and Code Compliance Officers Jorge Hernandez and Kenneth Varela were present to address questions related to the enforcement of the city’s codes appertaining to noise, animal waste, advertising blight, obstruction of sidewalks, and so on.

Decoplage

The home owners of 1500 Ocean were represented by their association president, Harold Rosenbaum, accompanied by his wife Joyce. Sherry Roberts came over from the famed Decoplage at 100 Lincoln Road. Ken and Judith Koppel represented Il Villaggio, situated at 1455 Ocean Drive. Herb Hofer and Kathleen Harris-Hicks represented 1390 Ocean Drive. David Granoff came by from 1357 Collins Avenue. All the residents of the area were represented by Frank Fiorentino, President of The North Ocean Drive Area Resident’s Association (NODARA), and NODARA Vice President Jo Manning.

Suffice it to say that the neighborhood is more than desirable at current prices, a sunny refuge from falling currencies. Its permanent residents include some of South Beach’s prominent civic leaders, business professionals, and imaginative artists.

 I was surprised by the presence of the top police brass and so many residents at this walkaround. I had an unpleasant experience with a so-called walkaround in my own neighborhood two years ago, an event I described in my feature article, ‘Las Olas Café Conference.’ A city insider had invited me, giving me hope that the administration was finally planning on giving some attention

to my crime-ridden area. Seventh Heaven is haunted by wall-to-wall urban clubs a block away and overrun with illegal immigrants, many of them law-abiding but all too many carousing at all hours of night, beer being their primary staple, with pot on the side and crack for dessert. My invitation to the Seventh Heaven walkaround, organized by the city manager’s office, turned out to be a practical joke on me. I was the only member of the public there, and the minor officials who attended did not walk around the neighborhood; it was a self-congratulatory, backslapping sit down whereat the officials remarked on their years of service to the city and how much they had done for the neighborhood.

It was with the Las Olas Café Conference in mind that I was reluctant to respond to Capt. Causey’s invitation to the high-class neighborhood walkaround. I was astonished to see the elite there, and breathed a sigh of relief when Capt. Causey announced that the city manager’s neighborhood bureaucrat would not attend—she is wont to shush neighbors who would make suggestions or point out contradictions and thus interrupt her agenda. I was soon disaffected of the notion that special attention was being given to the elegant neighborhood because it was affluent; I discovered that the Third District safety walk was sponsored by the police department and was the first of its kind.

In fact, the police department has been under fire lately and has been scrambling to directly address the concerns and pet peeves of Miami Beach residents, particularly the residents of South Beach. The primary blame for the discontent rests with the city manager, the CEO who answers to the part-time city commission, a board of directors which the constitutionally weak mayor serves as a chairperson among equals. That the police department would be making such a dramatic response makes sense, since police officers are the most visible authorities in the city and get blamed for unsightly events. Furthermore, the city manager and the commissioners respond sporadically to calls for action if at all, and often fail to take the steps wanted by the apathetic majority until it gets really hot under the collar. On the other hand, when someone calls the cops, they respond and within minutes. At this time, the main response of the police department to the current political emergency involves overlapping shifts in order to raise enough officers for sector patrols on the sidewalks during certain hours.

Speaking of response time, Capt. Causey said that average response time for serious emergencies is less than 60 seconds; that means the police department will be on the scene of a grave emergency within one minute of receiving the signal. I supposed that would be a world record, and asked him if every cop has a portable phone booth and Superman suit with him. I have had a great deal of experience response times to noncritical events, living as I do in a building barely managed by my slumlord; the average has been around fifteen minutes, and only on one occasion, when Luis the crazed crack dealer, having locked himself in his apartment, was beating his big dog with a board, did the police not show up at all.

One of the pet peeves in South Beach is the plethora of derelicts on the street. Ms. Martinez explained that there is no excuse for sleeping on the street or on the beach inasmuch as the Homeless Service Program had more than enough beds available. She distinguished the “homeless”—people who had lost their jobs or suffered some other financial distress and were living on the street or in cars—from the chronic “vagrants”—the alcoholics, drug addicts, panhandlers, mentally ill, and others wandering the streets, alleys, and beach.

 Just before the walkaround, I had observed Ms. Martinez and her colleague being accosted by a vagrant on the dimly lit beach walk behind 1500 Ocean. The shirtless man, who had a dog with him, was apparently drunk, and was making advances on all women passing by. Ms. Martinez and her associate were not frightened, stopped and responded to his remarks, then kept going. Another woman, a tourist enjoying an evening stroll, was similarly accosted by the man thereafter; frightened by his rude remarks, she fled to the street.

I asked Ms. Martinez why vagrants congregated on only one of the corners at Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue; the Walgreens corner, next door to the Decoplage and across the street from one of the finest hotels in the nation. I often visit a friend at the Decoplage, so I have to run the vagrancy gauntlet. I took a number of photographs of the scores of vagrants that park themselves around Walgreens, and posted them as “Walgreens Advertisements.” Ms. Martinez explained that the congregation of vagrants around the store is the fault of Walgreens’ management. The vagrants tend to hug the wall and the doorways around the store, hence are on private property. The managers permit them to blight the premises.

A home owner remarked that we actually see fewer derelicts on South Beach streets lately. It was generally agreed that in truth the homeless outreach people and the police deserve some credit for that.

I posed a rhetorical question, “Is vagrancy a crime?” Of course it is not; it is a civil right in Miami Beach today. I observed that when I arrived in South Beach, in 1969, before it was called South Beach, with twenty dollars in my pocket, I had three options: get a job, get off the beach, or go to jail. I was almost broke when I sold a pint of blood to pay for another night at the cockroach infested Colony, and then I went downtown and got a job scrapping crud off the decks of banana barges. If I had not followed that Jewish American princess to New York City, I would be a rich man today. And if there were no such job for me here today if I needed it, I would rather rob a bank than panhandle, or accidentally drown in the hole off the beach at the end of Lincoln Road, where we all watched the fire department try to revive a man in front of his kids some time ago.

Capt. Causey provided an amusing anecdote from the old days: a man who was on probation for robbing a bank went and robbed a bank on Alton Road. He knew the Miami Beach cops were onto him, so he had his lawyer offer to turn him in provided he not be turned over to the Miami Beach cops because he knew they did not cotton to criminals one bit.

As our group strolled up Ocean Drive, I took Interim Chief Martinez aside and asked him if he would be our new police chief, and if so, whether or not Capt. Causey would be his number two. He said that he had applied for the job, and that Capt. Causey is presently “Chief of Police” for the South District. I noted that Capt. Causey is good at public relations, which have been deplorable lately. I mentioned that I had recommended to Capt. Causey the police be made more visible, and in a better light, by revealing all the undercover work it does, to diminish the unfounded but frequent complaint that the “cops do nothing.” I asked Capt. Causey to let me know of interesting investigations and cases solved, which I might compose little stories about for presentation on the police department’s website and/or email-blasted as does the F.B.I.

As Chief Martinez knew very well, I had also recommended that a more detailed, incident-based crime statistical reporting method be used instead of simply handing the city manager and the city commission the major crime index report known as the UCR I (Uniform Crime Report). Indeed, what had irked me about the city manager’s negotiations with the police union was that he based his official or publicly stated assessment of police efficiency and adequacy of resources on the UCR report. That is certainly an archaic and absurd way of doing things today; for example, to suppose that if murders went down from 5 to 4, the number of police officers can be reduced by 20%. Of course there are other UCR categories—rape, assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, arson, and robbery. But that is not all that cops do. What about prostitution; simple assault; loitering; embezzlement; forgery; counterfeiting; disorderly conduct; fraud; drugs; gambling; family offenses; runaways; vandalism; weapons; stolen property; sex offenses; and other offenses, including, in some localities, vagrancy!

If the city manager and the city commission bases their decisions on the UCR alone, I said, they are fools. A police source told me that some other information is given to the city manager, and that information is supposedly given to the city commission, none of whom will confirm or deny its existence, but the substance and form of that information is unknown—in response to a recent public records request, the City Clerk was able turn up the UCR reports.

Wherefore I raised the issue again with Chief Martinez. He replied that the state does not participate in the NIBRS (National Incident-Based Reporting System). True, Florida is only one of five states does not participate, I said, but that does not prevent local agencies from participating in the F.B.I. program, which then is reported as UCR II, in addition to UCR I, or simply compiling their own reports from data, which I said I hoped our police department was doing. The Minneapolis Police Department does a good job of providing such statistics on its public website.

The chief said transparency would hurt tourism. I disagreed later that evening by email as I watched Hawaii 5-0. True or fictional stories of police successes add to the cachet of a tourist destination. As for locals, they are proud of their city’s criminal record, hopefully prouder of the good guys than the bad guys. When Capt. Causey put his honor guard on Lincoln Road for a brief spell, you should have seen the riffraff disappear from the front of Walgreens and the tourists fawn over the Miami Beach cops, which have a historical reputation of being tough guys, but were behaving so honorably, answering questions, giving directions and so on. Concealing the truth will eventually hurt tourism when awful things, not appropriately addressed due to cultivated ignorance, eventually occur.

By the way, not a single official has responded to my repeated suggestion that the police department be made more directly responsible to the public by electing a police commissioner who has ultimate power over the department instead of depending on the city manager and the city commission to adequately represent the public—the city manager answers only to the commission, and the commission is elected by a small percentage of the electorate and tends to be too ensconced to be responsive to the apathetic or silent majority. Great Britain has turned to an elected police commissioner system—Tim Collins, Iraq veteran and conservative candidate for Kent Police Commissioner, has promised to “catch the rats.” I suspect those who profit from liberality i.e. permissiveness fear that, for example, Joe Arpaio, the popular sheriff of Maricopa County, might retire to Miami Beach and run for the police commissioner position; he might very well win the office if he promised not profile Hispanics per se.

Our group paused for a spell at a certain location on Ocean Drive that has an “issue.” The captain told us about a secret program to resolve it. He also mentioned prostitution in the area, something that I had never noticed since I do not get out late. In fact, I am rather naive; unless a girl is standing next to a mail box with one hip thrust out, peering into cars, I would not suspect her; many decent girls dress like prostitutes nowadays. I bought a girl two drinks at a Las Vegas hotel; I thought she really liked me until she gave me a quote, and then cursed me for wasting her time. As I say to tourists who ask me what it is like to live in South Beach: It is great until you find out where you are, and that is true of most anyplace if you are an idealist.

How would anyone presently know what the crime rate for prostitution or for any other crime is in our South Beach zip code? Is our community pervaded by criminals? If so, why is that tolerated? Is it because civic leaders do not want to scare tourists away? Are some of our city officials and civic leaders corrupt? Of course, if we did know the crime rates, and pressed for a crackdown, the rates would rise with the arrests during the crackdown. Police officers in some cities are advised not to write up reports on some crimes lest the rates be too high. And then many victims do not report crimes.

As we approached Washington Avenue we were forewarned that we would be confronted by vagrants. Sure enough, there was one stretched out beside a shop on the corner. Capt. Causey ordered him to leave. “Yes, sir,” he said, jumped up and was gone.

What wonders a uniform works! I thought. That man would have cursed and threatened anyone else who might have made the request.

Capt. Causey remarked that cops cannot do anything about the vagrants that monopolize the bus stop seating unless they are seen committing crimes: drinking, using drugs, panhandling and so on. He said the commandeering of bus stop facilities by vagrants had been eliminated in Las Vegas by removing seating and erecting leaning posts so that people cannot sit down but can lean on the posts to take the load off. I remarked that when I was in Kansas City, Missouri, Safety Ambassadors monitored the bus stops; if anyone was present for more than 30 minutes, they called in the police to arrest the loiterers for loitering. In fact, I had highly recommended the Heart of America’s successful Safety Ambassador Program to the city manager and city commission, including details and references to its leaders, but no one bothered to respond or to look into it, which is normal.

Capt. Causey said he had been studying architecture, and thought Washington Avenue would be much better looking without all the awnings. I could see his point, considering how the sunshine would brighten the building, and how shady characters lurk under the awnings. But on second thought, shade is a good thing on a sunny day, and those of us who forget our umbrellas are thankful for the awnings and actually regret the stores that do not have them, for the gaps make it difficult to stay dry while making our way down the street during a storm. And does not the city make money permitting those awnings? Better check that out.

I was all walked out at that juncture. I had already walked over six miles that day, and was felling like a New York City flatfoot in need of a free coffee. I left the group and went over to see my friend Jimmy who runs Med Pizza a block up from the police station.

Skip the coffee: As I enjoyed a cold beer and a hot slice of pizza, I told Jimmy that I wished the whole group would have visited him, where he could have told them how a cop responding to a call was hit over the head and knocked out with a stool the assailant had grabbed from the pizzeria. This whole are is an “issue” to consider, I said, what with recent shootings nearby, and the tourist beaten to death on the sidewalk in front of the pool hall next door.

Jimmy said a huge gay club is opening up on the other side of his place, that it will have pool tables too. He was glad of the prospect of selling more pizzas. Maybe a gay club will succeed, I observed. I recalled that there used to be more gay clubs before the gay flight to Ft. Lauderdale and other parts, with the arrival in South Beach of the black crowds and urban clubs. Although there are many Hispanic gays, Latinos also seem to be prejudiced against gays. South Beach gays still have considerable political influence, I said, and can help with safety issues, like the man who swaggered down Washington Avenue and was shot dead by a police officer almost directly in front of a gay club across the street from the police station.

Having refreshed myself at Med Pizza, I walked home to my own neighborhood, with some trepidation because I do not like to be out at night. Gee, what a ghetto this area is, relative to North Ocean Drive, I thought, as I approached my humble abode. No wonder my friend at the Decoplage refuses to visit. At least there is plenty of room for improvement. And the city put in fancy sidewalks, redid the streets and utilities, so that is something to be thankful for. Thankfully the cops come when called. I have found them to be courteous and professional. One of them actually apologized that we have to live this way in our building, which could be a cool place to live; he said the situation was mostly the landlord’s fault, but the police department shared in the blame.

At home alone with Hawaii 5-0, I was glad I had ventured uptown in the dark. Sometimes one has to take risks. I had fun mingling with nice people. I must get out more often.

 

About David Arthur Walters

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