Cover Story: POLICE PRESENCE

An Update on Community Policing. Is It Working?

The Miami Beach Police Department recently responded to a public clamor for better service with a sector policing plan presented by Chief Raymond Martinez. Sector policing entails the assignment of the same police officers to regularly patrol small sectors of a broad area. The City of Miami Beach was itself a single policing area until it was divided into three policing districts, each under its own captain. Now the three districts have been divided into eight sectors under the same district captains. Four of those sectors including the South Beach Entertainment Sector comprise the South District. The Middle and North Districts have two sectors each.

“The Sector Plan was developed several years ago by various members of the department as the way to change the way we did business,” Chief Martinez explained. “At the time, it was not adopted as there was resistance to change within the organization. The fact is that until the Sector Plan we assigned officers the same way we did thirty years ago. There was no accountability. Officers were assigned to the three main areas of the city but the officers would go wherever they wanted.”

Sector policing is considered to be the practical application of the principles of community policing. Sector policing to stays in constant touch with members of communities, provides them with a voice in how their sectors are policed, and enables them to participate. The four main elements of community policing are sometimes identified as CAMP: Consultation: regularly consult with communities about their needs. Adaptation: adapt organizational structures to provide local commanders with greater authority. Mobilization: mobilize civilian agencies and individuals to realize policing goals. Problem-solving: identify and solve problems to reduce crime and insecurity.

The democratic notion of community policing remains virtually sacrosanct despite widespread criticism. It has been disparaged in Great Britain as a romantic delusion if not an attempt to enhance the authoritarian powers of an evolving racist state. That is hardly the case in our small town. In any event, practices may not be the ones preached. There has been a marked tendency for police to revert to traditional crime fighting, responding to incidents instead of consulting with civilians and being proactive. The rank-and-file may have little or no faith in the community policing ideology to begin with. Resources including the means of communication may be inadequate. Whatever communication does exist may have been dominated by smooth-talking police commanders, journalists, middle class people over forty, and so on. Absent also has been the promised visibility of familiar police officers, especially on foot patrols. And just keeping officers within a sector may be a fantasy that can never come true because of the contingencies.

The Miami Beach Police Department brass has indeed reached out to the community, holding neighborhood meets and greets and neighborhood walkarounds. Captain Causey in the South District, for example, regularly drafts and emails a newsletter to community members, and responds to anyone who comes forward with concerns. Six foot patrolmen, two on each shift, have been assigned to patrol nightclub-ridden Washington Avenue in South Beach. Those steps certainly enhance visibility and transparency, but there seems to be a marked reduction in the number of squad cars patrolling the streets and alleys in adjacent neighborhoods.

Nowadays the term, ‘community policing,’ is associated with such a broad spectrum of bureaucratic modernization involving “private/public partnering” that it is difficult to precisely define what it is. Some critics believe that Community Policing is a brand name that has more to do with a broad variety of subjective or irrational consumer inclinations rather than with rational, objective results. Therefore the results of community policing may become too “soft,” dealing with attitudes rather than acts, and therefore difficult to measure.

Miami Beach Commissioner Ed Tobin, a former prosecutor and a recent graduate of the police academy who takes a keen interest in the policing of the City of Miami Beach, has consistently objected to sector-patrol implementation of community policing because of budgetary and manpower allocation concerns.

“We disbanded the drug and auto theft units and took one detective out of the detective bureau to put uniforms on the street for the sector plan,” he said. “Crime fighting requires an overlap of various approaches. Detectives are critical. All crime seems to have a common intersection with drugs, so a narcotics unit is essential for developing intelligence on the professional criminals. Sector plans require a significant increase in manpower. Otherwise it’s a publicity stunt for merchants and residents to enjoy. Our business is to protect the public business, not the enjoyment business. In other words, we need to protect the public, not provide a plan that people enjoy/appreciate.”

Although public perception is important, it is true that a feel-good sector plan that may please businesses and residents in the entertainment sector may not be best for all. However that may be, the famed “enjoyment business” of Miami Beach, particularly its South Beach brand of enjoyment in the South District, gets the lion’s share of attention: many South Beach residents are barely aware of the districts to the north. It certainly deserves much attention as the foremost tourist and residential center dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, an interest it shares with the rest of the city. The impact of the enjoyment business is more than substantial when on any average day the number of visitors is almost equal to that of residents.

When we asked Chief Martinez if Commissioner Tobin had the right information about the drug and auto theft units, he said, “I did not disband the narcotics unit. I decentralized it, creating small crime suppression teams, and tasked them with addressing street level crimes such as drugs and prostitution. We continue to make drug arrests and conduct investigations focusing on what happens at the street level. We still investigate auto thefts. In fact our auto thefts are down 26.87% for the first 8 months of the year.”

A pressing need repeatedly expressed by aggravated residents and businesses has been for the enforcement of quality-of-life ordinances and better patrolling in and around the entertainment sector of South Beach. It is a relatively small area but it is a magnet for tourists and criminals who prey upon them and residents alike, and it attracts strangers whose notion of entertainment is drunken, disorderly, and sometimes violent conduct including shootouts and fatal beatings.

Merchants initially expressed appreciation for the restoration of foot patrols on Washington Avenue, which are associated with sector patrolling.

“I support sector policing because it makes sense to me to have police assigned to regular beats in order for them to better know the residents and recognize the nonresidents, in addition to patrolling Washington Avenue,” said David Kelsey, President of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association. He recalled that it was his suggestion in the late 1990s to divide the citywide policing area into three districts, which was tried, accepted and continued, and then sectors were defined. Apparently officers were allowed to roam wherever they wanted, however, hence might not be available when wanted in their specific areas, a strategic anomaly resolved by Chief Martinez with the institution of true Sector Patrols.

Public perception is crucial to the success of community policing. Far less “riffraff” is visible since the foot patrols began. Panhandling has diminished along with the number of vagrants and destitute derelicts who refuse to accept public assistance. And significant felony arrests have scored by the beat cops. Still the principle of community interaction has yet to be fully realized. Although some business operators say the cops are friendly, dropping into their places of business for a chat, residents on the avenue fear them more than welcome them, and claim they are standoffish.

I politely accosted Lt. William Jones and his team at a sushi place on Washington. He was affable enough. He said sector patrolling was working well, that it was impossible to please everybody, but every effort is being made to perfect it.

Chief Martinez was on the same page when he informed us that “the Sector Plan is a way of assigning our personnel to the same Sector everyday so they become familiar with the Sector they are working and at the same time accountable for what goes on in the Sector. Is it perfect? No. Would it work better if we had more officers? Yes. So would any staffing plan. If we did not assign officers by the Sector plan, how would the critics recommend that we assign them? Go wherever you want?”

Of course there exists a stereotypical standoff between civilians and cops. Familiarity can breed contempt, and what a cop needs most of all in order to do his duty and to survive doing it requires respect. I felt good about seeing an ‘Officer Krupke’ stop, fold his arms and stare down a sharpster in front of Starbuck’s the other day. The man eventually grinned, turned tail and slunk away. Still, police officers in each sector should reach out on their beats from time to time and get to know more of their regular clients. And merchants and residents should likewise reach out to police officers and get to know them well enough to at least name them.

“We have asked our officers to become engaged with our residents,” Chief Martinez said. “To listen and hear their concerns that they have in their neighborhoods. That is not to say we do not enforce the law or we are soft on crime.”

Merchants and residents offended by panhandlers, drunken vagrants, crack addicts, and mentally ill persons who occupy doorways and sit around the outside of businesses could do a much better job of calling the police or funding private security to protect their businesses. McDonald’s at Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue almost always has panhandlers at or near its doorway, one in particular whose garments are always soiled. At one time we observed a man sprawled out on his back across the sidewalk near the hamburger joint, with urine running between his legs, while a young, nattily dress panhandler with a disability identification card hanging from a gold chain around his neck worked the door, and yet another panhandler was working passersby a few feet away. A cop was on the scene chatting with a tourist, and, when interrupted, he promised to do something about the deplorable sight.

Captain Causey, chief of all four sectors in the South District, said that his officers were in fact constantly running people in from the McDonald’s corner, the problem being the chronic offenders who did not mind being jailed.

The business most notorious of all for unseemly scenes around its business is Walgreens on Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue. The store managers have historically refused to confront the squatters. Little can be done by the police absent a complaint for trespassing unless someone observes and reports ordinance violations. The corner is at the crossroads of the best South Beach has to offer including the most posh hotels, so panhandlers not to mention desperados are bound to congregate there in hopes of improving their fortunes.

We contacted Sherry Kaplan Roberts, a civic leader who lives next door to Walgreens, at the Decoplage. She said she had not yet formed an opinion on sector patrolling, but recounted her experience with Walgreens.

“In my opinion, Walgreens was not a good neighbor. When I was President of the Decoplage, they were fined thousands of dollars for repeated violations allowing garbage to accumulate in the building. Additionally, folks would buy single bottles of beer, etcetera, and sit in front of the store and panhandle.”

Now the private security firm covering the Decoplage has begun patrolling the area around Walgreens with good effect. The public engagement of private security firms to help deal with “disorder” and “quality of life” issues in a community can be effective if the right approach is made to the problems. Frankly speaking, sector patrols tend to devolve into “dog-shit patrols” preoccupied with residents’ concerns with infractions of petty ordinances. It is said that police officers may no longer enjoy the traditional duty of merely “keeping order” on the streets. Let Code Compliance officers, who are not police officers, take care of that picayune stuff if they will. Also pay private security to keep order, run off the riffraff and the like.

Lincoln Road, for example, is privately patrolled occasionally, on an observe-and-report basis, but more could be done along that order and on a greater scale. A suggestion was made to Miami Beach officials to carefully examine the details of the successful approach to cleanliness, security, and enjoyment taken in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The Heart of America’s Community Improvement District program trained and employed Maintenance Ambassadors and Public Safety Ambassadors who are closely coordinated with the police department. A so-called Compassion Zone was established where needy people could congregate and obtain needed services.

Miami Beach officials ignored the suggestion. Indeed, local officials customarily prefer that all suggestions for improvement come from their inner circle or from preferred consultants. It is feared that this unresponsive attitude may be maintained in respect to community policing despite the appearance of receptivity. Still it cannot be fairly said that the police department is unresponsive. Call the police and they come, and quickly if need be. We who wish they were more proactive instead of cruising between calls should call them more often to report suspicious activities they should look into.

Regardless of how good people feel about the community policing brand and its sector patrolling, Commissioners Tobin does not believe that it is cost-effective policing. As a matter of fact, we cannot say whether or not sector policing has reduced the crime rate, or, for that matter, exactly what it has done. And the reason or this ignorance is one of his pet peeves as well as the beef of anyone who needs immediate, up-to-date information about what is really going on in any city department so that effective decisions can be made.

Complaint and arrest data should be culled from police reports in a timely fashion. It is foolish to wait as usual for FBI’s major crime report summary that reports the local data fed to it. Local politicians may tell us crime is actually going down during this bad economic spell, but they rely on the 7 major index crimes on the FBI Uniform Crime Report Part I, disregarding the 46 specific lesser crimes sorted into 22 offense categories reported on UCR Part II via the National Incident Based Reporting System, as if the entire police force is devoted to major offenses. 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. 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.

The law should be enforced wherever violations occur no matter the gravity of the crime. The toleration of “minor” crimes fosters disrespect for law enforcement, which is conducive to the eventual rise in major index crimes. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is one of the less than a handful of states that has opted out of the National Incident Based Reporting System which reports UCR Part II. The FDLE has not responded to our repeated requests as to why it does not support NIBRS.

Nonparticipation in the FBI NIBRS program does not mean local agencies may not generate their own “incident-based” reports. Assistant Police Chief Mark Overton has taken our inquiry into the matter seriously. Formerly police chief for Hialeah, Overton is committed to the progressive upgrading of MBPD systems and services.

“The issue of going to NIBRS was recently discussed with one of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) assessors. His personal recommendation was that there is really no difference. Nevertheless, I am researching the matter and will be discussing it with the Executive Board of the Dade Chiefs to see what their feelings are regarding a switch. I feel it would be more feasible if it was a county wide switch.”

If community policing denotes a more democratic and “consumer oriented” approach to law enforcement, then let the consumers know what services they have paid for, especially arrests. Community policing will certainly fail or be written off as political bunk without any empirical basis unless the police department is transparent and therefore accountable for its performance through the institution of a sophisticated information system that would generate regular online statistical reports on its activities, including summary information on all complaints and arrests regardless of the gravity of the offenses, and regular online workforce summaries reporting the number of police department employees in each functional category including sectors at the end of each month, and regular and overtime pay in each category.

“I have been hearing that robberies and residential burglaries are exploding and that overtime is through the roof to fund the sector plan,” Commissioner Tobin responded to our request for accountability. “I’ve been trying to get numbers on both for a couple of months. I think the crime stats made it to City Hall this week but they have not been forwarded to me yet. I am waiting on the vacant position information. I wonder: how many arrests are for lesser charges to keep the violent statistics down? I think I may just ask for all the police reports for 2011 and 2012 and do the stats myself.

An accountant unfamiliar with government accounting might think that the payroll numbers would at least be immediately available to the commissioners as well as administrators. Can we imagine a comptroller of a corporation even vastly larger than the City of Miami Beach telling a director of her board that it will take a few months to come up with the latest monthly and annual reports?

“I am pretty sure that to fund all the sector plan overtime,” Commissioner Tobin said, “above the incredibly high number of budgeted overtime, the police department left ten or more positions vacant. The salaries are in their budget regardless of whether the positions are filled. An extra million or so in salaries can then go toward the overtime. We get less police protection. They produce a balanced budget at the end of the year. Once I get the stats on vacant positions for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, I’ll know how much they ‘appropriated’.”

We recalled that the greatest factor contributing to the rise in compensation was an increase in pensions budgeted from nearly $8 million or 25% of salaries budgeted for fiscal year 2005 to around $15 million or 42% of salaries budgeted for 2010. Non-court-related overtime budgeted rose from nearly $2 million or 5.8% to nearly $4 million or 11.3% budgeted over the same period. The number of sworn officers fell from 384 to 370 during that time. Overtime actually paid exceeded the amount budgeted in every year. For example, the excess was over $2 million in fiscal year 2007. This information was obtained from a hodgepodge of reports obtained from the “fishbowl” via the city’s search engine. We continue to search for the concise regular budget reporting of amounts budgeted versus actual amounts spent normally found in the private sector on at least a quarterly if not monthly basis.

At one time the city administration claimed that overtime was due to the growth of big events in town, and that paying overtime was more cost effective than hiring new officers, for that would ultimately contribute to inflation in pensions. It is difficult if not impossible to corroborate any claim when left in the dark by an inadequate information system.

“The police department left 38 positions open for a large part of 2011,” Commissioner Tobin claimed. “We funded the positions. The number dwindled to zero by the time I got the data. It’s a common practice in our City to have lots of extra cash for overtime, pretzels and beers.”

I was unable to substantiate the implied switch from coffee and donuts to pretzels and beer. In fact, I could find no one who had ever seen an officer get out of a police car with a pretzel. I do recall that a fancy pretzel place opened and folded on Lincoln Road right off Washington Avenue, but I never saw a cop in there. I did notice that Commissioner Tobin had approved the most recent police budget change, which sanctioned the hiring of twelve new officers, including six to patrol Washington Avenue on foot, and two additional officers to patrol the beach on ATVs. We asked him if he had objected to the pretzels before approving the new hires.

“I object to a plan that requires more officers than we have even with the additional twelve,” he responded.

“We never had 38 vacancies,” said Chief Martinez. “Unfortunately, Commissioner Tobin was given inaccurate information from the city’s human resources department. All of our vacancies are currently filled except for the 12 additional positions which were approved last week.”

No doubt everyone would like to get their heads together over the same accurate information. What we have here is a failure to communicate: to collect, compile, and report all the information we need efficiently and effectively. We are not satisfied with the sketches made thus far. We remain starved for dirty details integrated and presented in coherent reports.

The Chief was not about to let us to sell his department short if he could help it. First of all, he reminded us of the stellar performance of police officers during the last Memorial Day Weekend. He insisted that the MBPD was focused on reducing all crime on Miami Beach although, yes, the statistics published are limited to UCR I.

“I am happy to tell you that UCR I crime is 5.25% during the first 8 months of 2012,” he stated. “Not only is crime down 5.25% but our arrests are up during the same time.

“There are areas of our crime I am concerned with. Specifically, robberies are up 35 more incidents than the same time last year. This is unacceptable and we are addressing this as a multi-level approach to not only apprehend but prevent those crimes from occurring.

“We have recently created a Career Criminal Team to target criminals that are committing crimes on Miami Beach. We have formed a 12-person Assertive Criminal Enforcement team that will give some muscle to our Sector Plan. The ACE team will move around the city based on real time crime information and problems that may be happening. ACE is currently in training and will be hitting the streets next week.”

About David Arthur Walters

Comments

  1. David Arthur Walters says:

    RECEIVED FROM ALEJANDRO BELLO AFTER DEADLINE

    Let me first begin by saying, that I do not object to the concept of Community Policing/Sector Plan. In fact if you look at my work history, I was the first Neighborhood Resource Officer in South Beach area and was assigned there for 9 years. THE MOST IMPORTANT FACT THAT HAS BEEN OMITTED IS THAT THIS PLAN HAS BEEN TRIED BEFORE TWICE AND FAILED FOR THE SAME REASON CITED, LACK OF ADEQUATE MANPOWER. The biggest issue that the officers face on a day to day basis is that the sectors are constantly borrowing from one another in order to respond to calls. This is turn causes sectors to go unmanned at times resulting in no visibility of police in the area.

    MIAMI BEACH
    Alejandro Bello, FOP President
    Fraternal Order of Police William Nichols Lodge #8

Speak Your Mind