Amid Complaints About Drug Dealing, Commissioner Gets Tough with Police Chief

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Amid Complaints About Drug Dealing, Commissioner Gets Tough with Police Chief:

Committee discussion on perception of crime boils over

A recurring discussion for the City Commission’s Neighborhoods Committee regarding the perception of crime in Miami Beach boiled over this week with one Commissioner saying if things don’t improve, he’ll recommend removal of Police Chief Dan Oates.
 
The sponsor of the item, Commissioner Michael Góngora, invited small business owners and residents who have sent him “endless loops” of videos of drug deals taking place out in the open to speak before the Committee. While statistics show crime is down, Góngora and Committee Chair Kristen Rosen Gonzalez have raised questions about the perception of crime being on the rise or, at least, more visible.
 
“I continue to get complaints about crime in specific areas, the Entertainment District primarily, also up on the beachwalk,” Góngora said. Speaking over one video, he said, “My biggest concern is that at Committee we’re being told that crime is down and certainly the statistics we show seem to indicate that, but the messaging we’re getting on the Commission – and I do think that social media and other factors do contribute to that, that crime is up – but now I have business owners and residents that send me fairly long videos. This isn’t a fast transaction we’re looking at,” he said of the video. “It seems to be occurring in the middle of the street in open daylight with nothing happening.” (Photo above is a screenshot from the video shown by Góngora.)
 
One Ocean Drive business owner said he watches the transactions, calls police, then often follows a dealer so he can “update police on their location.” Armand Meyara said he’s been doing this for two years. “They’re interfering in my business. They’re selling it on my doorstop. They’re selling it on the side of the street,” Meyara said. 
 
Given his fear of retaliation if he were to appear in court as a witness, Meyara has declined. Police say they cannot make an arrest or conduct a search based on a video and a crime they did not witness. As a result, there is a standoff of sorts.
 
Gabriela Provensano, owner of a local jewelry store, said, “We’re just desperate to get help.” While saying she doesn’t have as much criminal activity as Meyara does, she said, the dealers “bother people at the tables. Even when you send them away. They don’t stop.”
 
The discussion item was regarding a proposal for a study of the difference between the perception of crime and the reported statistics. The Committee had asked Police Chief Dan Oates for options which he provided at costs ranging from $140,000 to $500,000. After hearing Meyara and Provensano, Commissioners seemed less willing to support funding for a study and more interested in funding solutions. 
 
“If it’s a study just to study what the social media impact on crime is, I’m not going to vote to spend taxpayer resources on that,” Góngora said. “I want to spend it to stop the problem.”
 
Michael DeFilippi, Ocean Drive Association Program Manager and one of the co-founders of the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Group on Facebook which has more than 2,000 members said, “It’s frustrating. I see it every day.” 
 
“You don’t need to study anything,” he said recommending the City “spend $150,000 on undercover resources or something that could be practical and makes sense.” He noted there is “no dedicated narcotics squad in the Entertainment District and they don’t even work on Sunday.” 
 
Ceci Velasco, Executive Director of the Ocean Drive Association, said, “I think that when they decriminalized marijuana, the message got out that it’s okay to smoke pot and when you have that, you have people who are users walking around looking for it. You have people who are suppliers and there’s not a place to sell pot legally so that kind of increased the number of people that are on the street.”
 
Now, she explained, the dealers are cleverly using the court decision that protects solicitation as free speech to skirt the law by acting as “promoters” of local clubs. While there are “real promoters,” Velasco estimates “80% of them are fake promoters. They’re out there with a flyer and they use that as a way to introduce themselves, and they offer their product and they are “Avon ladies”, the “Avon lady of drugs.”
 
“So, part of it is the decriminalization that kind of sent that message to the world that you can – nobody reads the fine print – you can smoke pot in Miami Beach,” she said. “And that message went out and we’ve had a problem ever since then because there is no way to deal with the suppliers. Now we have a proliferation of suppliers who have a methodology to approach people on the public right of way by saying ‘Do you want to go to Cameo, do you want to go here, and oh by the way I can also offer you something else.’ I’m talking plainly so it can be very well understood by everybody here. That’s a problem,” she concluded.
 
Rosen Gonzalez said her understanding of the law was that the Police Department “has the discretion to arrest for marijuana… We’re choosing not to take any action.”
 
When asked her thoughts on a solution, Velasco said representatives of the Ocean Drive Association met with City Manager Jimmy Morales this week with a suggestion to give promoters a designated spot for solicitation. “Lincoln Road had this big problem and they gave the vendors a spot and that way they could clear Lincoln Road of all of the vendors because they provided them with a spot and now there’s a lottery,” for a certain number of vendors at a time. “If it’s really about promoting on the street,” she said, give the legitimate promoters a place “to sell their party bus tickets, and legitimize that and make sure that that’s a real business and then get all these other fake promoters off the street that are really selling drugs to the side.”

When Police Chief Dan Oates finally took the podium, he mentioned the Facebook group and the “recurring theme” of the “revolving door of justice and that again and again and again our cops lock up people who are then are out on the street doing the same behavior again and again and again.”
 
“That hasn’t changed in the four years I’ve been here. It hasn’t changed in my career. It’s a challenge in policing everywhere,” Oates told the Committee. “So, one of the things we have to be realistic about is the fact that our criminal justice system doesn’t penalize drug selling seriously.” He gave the crime group credit for “the very, very special advocacy they’ve done” in the courts to get stronger sentences for repeat criminals. “It’s one of the great successes of that Facebook group.”
 
With the decriminalization of marijuana, Oates said, “We noticed out on the street almost immediately, that the presence of, the smell of the smoking of marijuana, the presence of marijuana, it had significantly jumped. It has significantly increased in the time that I’ve been here. “
 
The Entertainment District, he said, attracts young people from around the world. “A percentage of those folks engage in reckless behavior and there is a market for people who want to buy marijuana.” 
 
He told the Committee, “We do the best we can with the resources we have,” noting that “some staggering percentage, in the neighborhood of 25% of all of the arrests we make in any given year include a drug arrest.” The process, which involves an officer off the street for 90 minutes only to have an offender out the next day, is “extremely frustrating.” He said he wanted to dispel the notion that arrests are not being made. “We arrest a lot of people on drug charges. Our frustration is that almost none of them spend any significant time in jail.”
 
Góngora responded, “You say you arrest people but I’m seeing videos day after day of people that aren’t being arrested.”
 
“Put yourself in our shoes,” Rosen Gonzalez said. “There are people here today that are not part of the social media [crime group]. You have business owners who have never come to the Commission before.” Noting residents who said crime has been pushed from the Entertainment District up as far as 29th Street, she said, “They’re telling us that this is the worst it’s ever been… and you’re telling us that that’s not true. Now imagine the situation that we’re in because we’re expecting you to do a job that our residents are perceiving is not being done because they don’t feel safe. How are we supposed to feel about you doing your job?” Flabbergasted, she said, “Just put yourself in our shoes. What would you do if you were the Commissioner and I was the Police Chief? I’d like to know.”
 
Oates offered to meet with any resident or business owner as he said he does regularly as well as offering the opportunity for Commissioners to “Come out with us on any given night… We’re happy to show you around, show you the techniques we do use and the efforts we do make, see if you have suggestions as part of that… we’re happy to engage, we do willingly and regularly engage with a lot of our partners on Ocean Drive.”
 
Business owner Meyara responded that he’s met with the Police Department, showed them hundreds of photos and videos, “even locations where they’re dealing and nothing’s happened… I feel like I’m wasting my time.”
 
John Deutzman, co-founder of the Miami Beach Crime and Prevention group said crime is down in the City, especially “major crimes Iike armed robbery, victim crimes, theft and all that” due to the Chief’s efforts. But, drug dealing, he said, is not part of the official crime reports because it is a “business transaction, with a willing buyer, a willing seller.” 
 
He did say there is an “unacceptable number of predatory criminals and drug dealers running around loose here and that is a much bigger problem philosophically than the Police Department. This is a community thing… We’ve allowed this for years and it’s getting worse.” Earlier, he told Commissioners it was a “political problem” that needed a strong “zero tolerance” message.
 
Community activist Ray Breslin agreed the City should not use money for a study but to deploy undercover narcotics officers. With regard to marijuana, he said, “Eventually it’s going to become legal. Once it becomes legal and it’s sold in places that are government controlled and taxed, a lot of this will go away. Go back to the bootleggers when liquor was, prohibition was there, all of this happened and until it became legal and controlled, it was a mess. People were killed. People were robbed and everything else. The same thing is going to happen with marijuana forever until it’s legalized. I’m not really in favor of legalizing it but that’s the reality.”
 
Getting back to the request for a study, Góngora asked for more specific details. Oates said, “I personally feel that we could improve the quality of life on Ocean Drive if we did something about traffic and pedestrians, the cabaret experience, but we have a business model that attracts young people to South Beach to party. It’s a great business model…”
 
Góngora interrupted him. “That’s not the problem. I don’t mind that people are coming to party inside of a nightclub where the noise isn’t emanating onto the street. I’m not concerned that traffic’s going to change the problems and the feelings of unsafeness. The problem we’re facing – and we don’t address it – no matter how many times we bring it up on Neighborhoods [Committee], it’s kind of like it could be the traffic. It could be the noise. It could be that… It’s not. It’s the criminal activity that’s occurring on the street that’s making people feel unsafe. And none of what we’re discussing at Neighborhoods Committee to date is addressing that and that is the point I would like to see addressed.”
 
“And my response, Commissioner, is your cops are addressing it,” Oates said. “There are a lot of frustrations in the system and what happens when we make a basic drug arrest… Our criminal justice system doesn’t put people who sell marijuana in jail… We arrest them with frequency and our biggest challenge is that they return to the street.” 
 
After further discussion, Góngora’s frustration spilled over. “This Commission is always willing to fund every project you bring us, but it gets to a point – you tell us you need more lighting, we give you more lighting. You need more video specialists to analyze the evidence, we give you that. You want more Park Rangers people, we give you more Park Rangers. We will dedicate whatever funding we need to keep the City safe, but it’s not reducing the amount of complaints that I get so, for me, there’s a disconnect from what I’m hearing from you and what I’m hearing from the community.”
 
Góngora said he wanted the crime discussion “on every single Neighborhoods agenda, until we reach some kind of a solution… I’m not satisfied with the responses that we’re getting and if we don’t start moving in a more satisfactory direction, then it will be my position we change Police leadership.”
 
There was some applause in the audience, then community activist Mitch Novick, owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel stood up and said, “I just want to say I support Chief Oates. I blame you guys for the failure of cleaning up our community.” Novick believes the noise and party atmosphere on Ocean Drive are the cause and he faults Commissioners for allowing loud music from certain businesses.
 
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “Public safety is job one.” Noting the Commission has committed additional resources, he said, “Obviously, what I’m hearing is a concern and I look forward to continuing the discussion and specific policy ideas of how we address it.” Whether it’s additional funding, changes in the traffic or pedestrian environment, he said, “I’m open to ideas but this is top priority.”
 
Saying she would rely on Oates as a trained law enforcement officer to come back with specific tactics on the drug dealing issue, Commissioner John Alemán said, “It’s unpleasant to walk down the street and be offered drugs… it ruins your vacation and that’s what’s happening for our visitors and obviously our business owners are feeling it impacts their business so it does need to be addressed.”
 
“I’m not interested in [hearing] it’s frustrating for the officers, because I get it. There’s a revolving door. We still have to make these arrests,” she said. “Clearly, we’ve got some hot spots… This Commission has added at least 17 new police positions since I’ve been in office, I think more, plus park rangers. We’ve added lighting, we are trying to provide better [street] activation because we know when people are present then crime goes away but this particular issue doesn’t seem to be getting better so we need specific actions on this.”
 
Rosen Gonzalez, who is a staunch supporter of funding additional security cameras but is also a staunch opponent of the General Obligation (G.O.) Bond offering before voters in November said, “I was sad to see that the cameras on the Boardwalk were tied into the G.O. bond. I thought we had the funding to put those cameras in. So that upset me because if the G.O. bond fails, then we’re not going to have those cameras, which I think are really pivotal and I thought they were funded.”
 
In addition to keeping the item on the Committee’s agenda, Góngora asked for it to go to the entire Commission for discussion during its upcoming goals conference. “Because this issue has become bigger than this Committee, this is an issue that the entire Commission needs to weigh in on,” he said.
 
The Committee did discuss one area of action: Removing the wooden huts from the boardwalk which residents say have become a hangout for criminals.
 
MBPD officer makes an arrest at one of the boardwalk huts


 
A group hangs out at one of the boardwalk huts


Crime Prevention group co-founder Deutzman said, “We just had a long discussion about how we could get creative to solve crime… I’m giving you a specific way you can solve it. We found there is a hornets’ nest of criminals now that has to be removed… I’ve testified about the wooden, dilapidated disgraceful chunks of the boardwalk that are left… since that testimony, things have gotten worse.”
 
“The huts,” he said, “have become more and more a hangout, haven, home for dangerous, predatory criminals who are active criminals” citing some who have been convicted of violent crimes like strong armed robbery. The boardwalk is slated for future demolition and Deutzman asked that they be demolished now.
 
The cost to remove them is in the $10,000 range. Alemán said, “They’re going to be removed anyway, so why not just accelerate it and move them now.” She suggested it could go on the Commission’s consent calendar for October but she said, “Certainly it’s within the City Manager’s authority to just go do this which I think he should.”
 
Resident Barbara Garcia who uses the 29th Street beach access point expressed concern about where the people who hang out in the huts would go. She said she's observed criminal activity near the 29th Street pedestrian bridge. “I don’t feel safe going to the beach anymore.” 
 
Real estate investor Rory Greenberg said he’s been spending a lot of time in the 31st Street area due to a project he’s working on. Speaking of the huts, he said, “I’m not one that gets intimidated often, but I can’t walk down the boardwalk and make contact with an individual because they start to bark at you and look to start a fight. It’s a pretty angry neighborhood.”
 
Rosen Gonzalez expressed frustration at having to remove amenities such as the huts which were designed for “people coming off the beach to sit and put their shoes on.” Noting the City has already “removed all the benches on 23rd and 24th” she said, “What we’re doing is changing our behaviors because we can’t control the crime. I think that’s a problem. We should be able to have huts. We should be able to have benches and we should be able to remove the criminals. Instead of having us remove or change our lifestyle.”
 
Góngora said, “It’s incredibly frustrating for us, hearing your complaints and not getting the responses that we want, but we’ll continue this dialogue at the Commission goals conference and at the Neighborhoods Committee meeting. In the interim, I’ll make a motion,” he said gritting his teeth. “I’m frustrated to make this motion ‘cause I hate pulling out resources. I hate the fact that we have to pull out huts and benches and can’t let people have nice things because it turns into a haven for criminal activity, but since it is, I am reluctantly making the motion to support Commissioner Alemán’s request to pull out the huts.”
 
 Photo of boardwalk huts courtesy Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Group
 

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