SPECIAL MIAMI BEACH POLICE UNIT HAS ITS HANDS FULL
If we don’t expect police activities and police departments to have an impact on crime, disorder, and fear, they almost certainly won’t. (William J. Bratton)
By David Arthur Walters
November 16, 2013
MIAMI BEACH—The alley between Euclid and Meridian Avenues on 7th Street was blocked off by a slew of unmarked police cars on the afternoon of the first day of November. Bang! Bang! Bang! the flash-bang grenades boomed. SWAT officers, their faces concealed by ski masks, ganged up on the scene. A drug warrant was being served. Two men in the alley expressed concern that their own building might be searched, and hurriedly departed in the opposite direction.
I contacted Capt. Mark Causey at MBPD for an interview, and discovered that decriminalization of marijuana in states like California is causing small drug distribution businesses to flourish in Miami Beach via United States Mail.
At 710 Seventh Street, for the first time this year, he said, drug warrants had been served twice at the same place on the same person, arrested both times at the scene, one Eric Williams, aka as E. Green, for possession of the green medical marijuana imported from California that he intended to sell in his trademark plastic cylinders.
The rental market is tight with the onset of the winter season. Apparently Mr. Williams could not find another apartment right away to conduct the business he counted on, for the warrants were served only 4 weeks apart. The first search yield about 50 grams, kept in a cabinet, the second yielded 25 grams, found hidden in the underside of an ironing board. The street value of a gram of pharmaceutical marijuana is $50. Williams’ cottage enterprise was grossing an estimated $2,000 to $3,000 a week. The cost of doing business and living in chic South Beach is high. He did not have many valuables in his apartment to show for his endeavors. His Range Rover was so dilapidated that it was not seized.
The raid was conducted by the Special Investigations Squad, formed in April2013 as a squad within theSpecial Operations Unit (SOU), created along with other innovations at the behest of Assistant Chief Mark Overton, formerly Hialeah’s police chief. He is proud of its accomplishments.
“The Special Operations Unit detectives and the Uniform Patrol officers deserve a great deal of credit for the high caliber police work being performed on a daily basis,” he said. “This unit is the center piece in the department’s strategy to control certain types of criminal activity within our city. It directly supports the Uniform Patrol Officers, addressing special problems brought to our attention by the beat and patrol officers on the streets, working with them to address problems with the most effective tactics available. This synergy of operations is the Department’s overall goal, not only to deal with issues in the short term, but to find lasting solutions to problems.
The SOU is commanded by Capt. Mark Causey. The crimes the SOU addresses were already Captain Causey’s forte during his 20 years of service. Chief Raymond Martinez reassigned him in May 2009 to temporarily serve as chief of the city’s southern precinct, which includes the hectic South Beach Entertainment District, to implement reforms and to establish closer relationships with businesses and residents, and then he put him in charge of the newly formed SOU.
The SOU has five squads with five officers each. The Special Investigations Squad, led by Sgt. Darrell Prieto, handles narcotics, vice, organized crime, and human trafficking. Sgt. Prieto has 23years of service, with experience handling all these types of crimes.
I met two Prieto’s at the station, where there is some difference of opinion as to which one is handsomer, the one who looks “good,” like a smooth business executive, or the one who looks “bad,” like he has done some serious hard time. The latter Prieto was one of the masked officers who made the arrest at 710 Seventh Street. He told me that the raid I has seen was routine.
“Business is not slacking off at all,” when I asked him if the drug business has declined lately. “We are always busy. We make three, four or more drug busts every day.”
“I thought I saw undercover narcs around the dumpster in the alley the other evening. They looked like dealers.”
“We are everywhere. In the alleys, looking out windows, on rooftops, you name it.”
Capt. Causey pulled up an End of Shift reports on his computer and gave me some Special Investigations Squad arrest numbers for the four days ending the second day of November. 19 Felony Narcotics; 11 Misdemeanor Narcotics; 3 Felony Prostitution; 4 Misdemeanor Prostitution; 7 Arrest Warrants; 2 Felonies; 11 Misdemeanors including battery, theft, etc; 2 Traffic; 5 Miscellaneous offenses. 144.5 grams OF drugs were seized, includingcocaine, marijuana, mollies, crystal meth, GHB and mushrooms.
He provided me with some photographs taken of a recent raid at an address on the 1200 block of Alton Road, where four persons were arrested with 107.9 grams of crystal meth, 25.45 grams of marijuana, 7 grams of mushrooms, 1 quart of GHB, and multiple pipes and paraphernalia.
“The police department does not get credit for more than half of its business,” I observed. “These arrests are not on the index of the eight major crimes uniformly reported by the FBI as UCR-1, which is all the city commissioners see unless they make specific requests for incident reports, which have not been readily obtained according to Commissioner Ed Tobin. UCR-1 crimes go down a bit, so the city manager reports that crime is down.”
“It goes up and down and up and down,” Causey said matter-of-factly.
“But don’t you think all incidents should be reported, for instance narcotics and prostitution busts? The department has the incidents in its database. It does not have to wait for a county-wide system or FBI accreditation to report crimes to the public so the public can recognize what the department does and object to reductions based on only eight categories of major crimes, or call for more men on the force.”
“I don’t have knowledge on this subject matter.”
“Because it is political,” I offered.
“It is not political.”
“Budgets are political outcomes,” I argued. “Every time the media reports on an allegation of police misconduct no matter how minor, it recites a litany of past wrongs, and says the department is in bad trouble, but neglects to recite the last dozen positive things done. The department should get credit for whatever it does.”
”We are not numbers driven,” he said. “Miami Beach is a rapidly developing tourist and retirement location, so the number of crimes tracks the influx and its character.”
“So statistical reports could be misinterpreted as indicating a crime wave with the influx and its type? I suppose the rate might rise temporarily if the department does a better job enforcing the laws. On the other hand, could a rise could indicate that it is doing a bad job policing?”
“We are not numbers driven. We take the time necessary to make quality arrests that will stick, taking down the worst offenders first,” he said, interrupting our conversation to take a call regarding the investigation of a meth lab in South Beach.
“People think the Miami Herald quashes crime stories because if tourists knew what was going on that would scare them away,” I observed when he got off the phone.
“I do not believe that,” said Causey. “Miami Beach gets national attention. The search terms, ‘Miami Beach,’ attracts the most traffic on the Internet in South Florida, so anything about the beach including crime only brings more readers to the media, and they profit on the traffic.”
“I noticed the other day on the Internet,” Sgt. Prieto offered, “that police events in Hialeah which had nothing to do with Miami Beach were listed under the Miami Beach category. Miami Beach attracts a lot of attention.”
I transcribed the brief interview and sent it along to Assistant Chief Overton with a request for a statistical comparison, of arrests during the operations of the new Special Investigations Unit, to the arrests made for the same number of months prior to its formation for the categories of crimes addressed by the SIS, none of which are reported under UCR-1.
“Consider the most recent Uniform Crime Report statistics on the "Big Three," as I like to refer to them,” Overton responded. “From January 1st through October 15th of this year, in comparison with the same time frame in 2012, Robbery is down 8.26 percent, Auto Theft is down 25.19 percent, and Burglary is down 9.88 percent. Another important indicator of the success of this strategy that is not tracked by UCR is the fact that we had had 179 less vehicle burglaries to date as compared to the same time frame in 2012. While auto burglaries are considered a minor offense, it is a good measure of what is occurring on the streets. Therefore, having fewer incidents is a good sign that what we are doing is having a positive impact.”
He referred my request for comparative incident statistics back to Capt. Causey. I got the impression from our interview that generating the report that I wanted would not be the result of a simple database query by him, so I told him not to bother, because statistics on police performance was a subject I would take up at another time. I had already gone around the block for coffee with Overton on the subject in an effort to enlist him to champion regular public reporting of important incidents not on UCR-1, such as narcotics busts. Proactive narcotics investigations can turn up all sorts of criminal activities since narcotics are involved in many other categories of crimes.
Overton deserves the benefit of the doubt because he has the broad view on what is actually going on, and Causey is even closer to the work, sometimes taking to the street himself.
However that may be, we know that police chiefs throughout the nation will naturally take credit for falling crime rates and will place the blame on rises on circumstances beyond their control. Some academics claim that crime cannot be controlled by policing in the long run, concluding from their studies that criminal activity is a demographic and cultural phenomenon.
William J. Bratton famously agreed with the numerical history, but he took exception to the defeatism based on the academic studies.
“Contemporary criminology maintains a longstanding belief that police activities have little or no appreciable effect on crime, despite the public ideology and political rhetoric periodically mustered to justify larger police budgets and staffing increases…. I do not take issue with the empirical validity of any of these studies or with the observation that police activity has historically had little impact on crime. I do question the basic premise that because no credible causal relationship has ever been shown to exist between police activity and reductions in crime, no causal relationship can exist…. In the broadest sense, an effective police department can’t keep people from becoming criminals or control the social and demographic forces that, according to many criminologists, engender criminal activity. But we can keep people from becoming successful criminals. We can turn the tables on the criminal element. Instead of reacting to them, we can create a sense of police presence and police effectiveness that makes criminals react to us. And then, in a narrower sense, we do keep people from becoming criminals or at least from committing criminal acts as they realize their chances of success are much smaller.” (1)
The problem with statistics is that they can lie through their teeth, sometimes with the help of police departments who manipulate or game them when funds and continued employment is driven by the numbers. Statistics, ma’am, do not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the events counted nor their circumstances, never mind the complex of causes that led to the results. Given statistical ambiguity, it is no wonder that operational commanders like Capt. Causey would rather keep the broader number of incidents close to the vest rather than be driven by them. Quality should count, but no weight is given to quality. Taking a major criminal off streets might have the same weight or positive impact as the arrest of two-dozen lesser culprits.
If output numbers on arrests are be meaningful, then beneficial social outcomes, like feelings that a neighborhood is safe and in good order, must be considered. If policing customers are satisfied, then the numbers do not count for much; but if the numbers get out of hand, customer satisfaction will fall.
Residents of the block on which 710 Seventh Street sits say there has been a tremendous improvement since three years ago, when the block was overrun by drugsters and other criminals. 710 Seventh was known as a “noisy” building with unsavory people loitering in the little parking area in front. It did have a good resident manager with a gun permit for awhile.
Another address, on the same block, with 12 studio apartments, housed a pimp, a prostitute, four drug dealers, and an early-morning, low-level casino that charged a fee at the door and sold several cases of beer among other things nightly, including a prostitute who serviced the gamblers, mostly kitchen workers, in the back seat of a car with a temporary tag in the alley behind the building. One of the dealers worked for a transportation system that linked several hotels; his mate, a crack addict, worked the desk at one of them, and would show rooms for the purpose of selling drugs.
Another dealer on the premises, Francisco, a Santeria priest who had an interest in a nightclub on Washington Avenue and who used his Euclid Avenue studio as an office, was an old member of the Bloods gang. Francisco was visited regularly by a nicely dressed fellow from Tampa, who sported a pitbull and a submachine gun, as clouds of pot smoke billowed out the windows and rap music boomed. Luis, the alcoholic coke dealer who lived in the studio next door to him was looking to buy a gun, he said, to kill Francisco, who had socked him in the face one night. Francisco, in turn, had a shovel to put Luis in the ground if need be. Six undocumented workers were squeezed into one studio on the premises, and another was habituated by a teenage gang at night—a woman found naked on the steps claimed she had been raped when her husband showed up.
Inadequate policing was blamed along with horrendous real estate management by greedy realtors and landlords, some landlords enjoying cash receipts, going so far as to advertise that no background and credit checks were required. Drug gangs marked buildings on the block with tennis shoes thrown over the electric wires in the back alley. Cars were stolen from the parking lot of the condominium at Euclid Avenue and 6th Street—there were several late night gang fights in the lot as well. An influx of undocumented workers from Guatemala and Honduras, allegedly trafficked by the mob to work in restaurants, included a few very dangerous criminals. Derelicts slept in parking spaces and between buildings, stealing bikes and other items during the day. One immigrant female was stabbed multiple times by her violent mate, who was said to be wanted for murder south of the border, while his friend looked on. Elderly people feared to go to the store after dark. A woman was knifed and raped behind Meridian Market one morning. Las Olas Café on an adjacent corner was burglarized.
All this on one block two blocks from famed Ocean Drive, and while former City Manager Jorge Gonzalez was citing UCR-1 statistics that crime was way down on the beach.
Effective policing including the cooperation of immigration authorities deserves plenty of credit for the radical improvement of that block. Another factor was the general economic decline that prompted the parasitical element to go back to where they it came from or to find better pickings elsewhere.
Effective policing depends in large part on cooperation with residents and businesses. Everyone can have a hand in reducing the crime rates. How reporting numbers can lead to better policing is reserved for another story.
(1) Bratton, William J. ‘Great Expectations: How Higher Expectations for Police Departments Can Lead to a Decrease in Crime.’ In ‘Measuring What Matters,” Proceedings From the Policing Institute Meetings, Research Report, DOJ: 1999