Crime in Miami Beach: Is Perception Reality?

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Crime in Miami Beach: Is Perception Reality?:

Police chief addresses perception, presents new initiatives

In the 1980s, American political strategist Lee Atwater proclaimed “Perception is reality.”  Meaning, according to Simon Kelmer, “Forget the facts: if you can make people believe something, it becomes, if you like, a de facto fact.”

After a contentious meeting with the Commission’s Neighborhoods Committee in September, Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates came to this week’s meeting armed with statistics and new initiatives to address issues and counter perceptions of an increase in crime. Frustrated by resident and business complaints about drug dealing and other issues, Commissioner Michael Góngora told Oates a month ago that if things didn’t improve, he would recommend his removal.

Oates presented a set of slides detailing the number of narcotics arrests in the City. He noted that through the end of August, there were a total of 3,800 arrests in Miami Beach involving approximately 1,100 people. “About 250 of those arrests are multiple times, the same people,” Oates said. “Almost 30% of people arrested are arrested with at least one narcotics charge… the bulk in the Entertainment District.”
 
Showing a heat map of arrest activity, he said, “Our challenge is basically between 7th and 11th Street.” He noted “47% of arrests in the Entertainment District involves a narcotics arrest.”
 
With “1,200 plus arrests” involving about 600 individuals, “several hundred of them arrested multiple times,” Oates said, “There’s a couple ways to read this data. One of them is that we are in fact making a lot of narcotics arrests. Our cops are out there making those arrests but another way to read it, of course, is the challenge remains that this is where the concentration of the activity is.”
 
The Police Chief summarized current staffing and discussed some new initiatives that have been implemented on an experimental basis, including the addition of a captain to supervise overnight operations, coordinating with Code Enforcement and other City departments and police agencies. Oates asked the Committee to support that initiative on a permanent basis.
 
With regard to current staffing, in addition to one sergeant and five officers per shift on regular patrol 24 hours a day, there are shift overlap periods three times a day in which there are 2 sergeants and 10 officers on patrol. “We try to time those overlap activities for the peak activity during the day,” Oates said.
 
Added to that over the past couple of years is a group of officers dedicated specifically to Ocean Drive that includes two lieutenants, two sergeants, and 10 officers.
 
MBPD also has additional specialized units that each dedicate roughly 70% of their time to the Entertainment District including:
  • Homeless Liaison Unit: one sergeant, four officers, one civilian
  • Crime Suppression Team: one sergeant, four officers
  • Special Investigations Unit (Narcotics)
  • Traffic Enforcement (LPR) Unit: two officers who are “typically along the 5th Street corridor because that’s the entrance, the portal to Ocean Drive and the Entertainment District,” Oates noted.
For the past couple of years, they’ve also used what is called the “Overlap” Deployment Friday through Sunday evenings between 10:15 and 1:00 am in a “high visibility, tone setting” initiative for Ocean Drive.
 
“We take one half of the cops that are in the City, 26 officers, and we deploy them to the Ocean Drive area between 7th and 11th Streets,” Oates said. “The strategy behind this is we set a tone for the evening. As people are arriving, they see a high visibility, a great number of police officers when they arrive to Ocean Drive for the evening and we think it sets a tone and in previous incarnations here I’ve given you very significant data on the kind of enforcement activity that they do, a lot of car stops, a lot of activity in that regard, a lot of summonses issued and it does set a tone with regard to behavior on Ocean Drive on the weekend evenings.”
 
Finally, he noted the “extraordinary enhanced staffing for major holidays and major events” as well as the elimination of east side parking on Ocean Drive during major events, an initiative tried in the past year. “We think all of these techniques make a difference and that they work,” he told the Committee.
 
Oates highlighted some new Initiatives that he’s been experimenting with over the last month, including the overnight supervisor. It is a suggestion that has been raised by City Manager Jimmy Morales with the Commission over the past year, initially with the idea of adding an assistant city manager position. Ultimately, Morales and Oates discussed the position being within the Police Department.
 
During the month of October, Oates assigned a police captain to the overnight role coordinating with Code Enforcement, Parking, Parks, Sanitation, Transportation, other government agencies, and outside law enforcement. “So, we now have an executive working at least four nights a week, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings,” he said.
 
In addition, there has been one full-time beat officer assigned during the day to “the heart of the cabaret district in the 900 block,” the area of concern raised last month with regard to the drug dealing. Oates said a second full-time beat officer will also be deployed to that area soon.  
 
Another experiment, a special beach theft initiative. “Beach theft is one of our biggest challenges all throughout Miami Beach but particularly in the south end,” he said. Without going into details, Oates noted special deployments “on given days.” 
 
Through what he called an “orchestrated [and] coordinated effort,” Oates said, “We’ve been successful on the days that we’ve done this initiative and we’ve made quite a few arrests in the last month” for beach theft.
 
Another new technique dubbed “Targeted Response to Area Concerns” or TRAC augments staffing with resources from other areas of the City. Citing a recent study of patrol staffing, Oates said, “One of the findings in that staffing study was, at certain times of the day, in the middle and in the north, we have perhaps more staffing than we need so on an ad hoc basis on the overnights the new captain who is assigned is creating or pulling a team of two, four officers, maybe a sergeant, down to the Entertainment District to do selective enforcement. On a given night, depending on conditions and our intelligence that enforcement could include these officers being in uniform or plain clothes, marked or unmarked cars, on foot, on bikes or on ATVs patrolling the park, patrolling the beach, patrolling Ocean Drive, patrolling the 100 blocks, patrolling the alleys.”
 
There are also now “more cops on bicycles,” he said. “This was a request of our officers and some folks in the community and so recently we transitioned our Ocean Drive teams from using golf carts and ATVs to being more and more on bicycles. That seems to be popular and is working.”
 
Another new initiative is taking 3 to 4 officers on the overlap periods, 10:30 to 1:00 am, seven nights a week and putting them on ATVs on the beach “to sweep north and south from the Pointe to 15th Street,” Oates said. “As you know, the beach is closed from 10 pm on. As you know that is regularly violated by a whole lot of people. It’s extremely dark out there and some of those folks get victimized. So, it’s a very aggressive effort, at least in the lower end, to encourage our tourists to get off the beach.” After the overlap officers finish their shifts, he said there are “at least two more sweeps of the beach with our regular personnel before sunlight.”
 
Oates is also pursuing additional surveillance cameras. “The most important one is on the north end,” he told the Committee. “We’re trying to get that done immediately, at 15th and Ocean, and we’re considering an assessment of new locations.” Adding cameras will be “easier to do with resources” that are included in the General Obligation Bond being considered by Miami Beach voters next week. 

“We’re also experimenting with earlier start times for the Ocean Drive squads,” he said. "For years they’ve worked from 8 at night until 6 in the morning. We recently shifted one to an earlier start to 5:00 and we may shift the other one. We’re trying to see how effective that is.”
 
“Early on when we started the Ocean Drive squads we had problems between 4 and 6 in the morning. Lately we have not and so there might be some room for some movement on that. And then finally we can selectively augment this with occasional overtime and we’re doing some of that as well,” he noted.
 
Then it was on to the “ask” to add “an extra executive to the organization.” The fully loaded cost with salary and benefits is $160,000, Oates said, something he can fund within his FY 2019 budget through vacancies, though he will need additional funding in 2020. He asked for a formal endorsement from the Committee.
 
Góngora thanked the Chief for his presentation and said, “I do want to personally say I appreciate your focusing so much on this issue since last month’s meeting.”
 
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez expressed concerns about any additional money saying, “We keep throwing money at this and it’s spilling out from the Entertainment District” saying “the [Flamingo Park] Historic District is now having issues.”
 
“It’s not just the Entertainment District,” she said. “It is migrating west to that entire garden apartment district… I do not want to remove resources from the mid beach or the north beach.”
 
Underscoring the perception issue, she said, “There’s a sense that crime is worsening there.”
 
Oates responded, “We’ve characterized this as a perception problem. I’ve offered data over the last several months and I just want to remind everyone crime is down significantly. Individual incidents still get significant attention but the data has shown – and the reality is – that crime has been down significantly for several years. Every individual event is awful. Every individual victim, it’s terrible that they are victimized but in terms of where crime is occuring, we have a very strong handle on that and we deploy those resources very, very well to deal with it and we’ve been effective.”
 
“Individual events, yes, they’re shocking. They get significant coverage, headlines. They affect people and they affect perception,” Oates continued. “I’ve shown the data… but I just want to remind everyone we’re dealing with challenges around perception as well as the data itself.”
 
Rosen Gonzalez said, “I know that according to you crime is down but that’s not how people feel. And if people feel unsafe – and whether its perception or whether it’s a problem – then… it’s a problem.”
 
“I totally agree,” Oates responded.
 
Góngora said, “That’s why I put this on [the agenda] because the perception is that there’s more crime and we get more complaints from people than I recall in the past and that’s coupled with, quite frankly, a lot of police officers telling me that we’re not arresting as many people. So, it makes me wonder sometimes if it’s down because we’re just not making as many arrests as we used to, or we could or should be, to send a message that you can’t come to Miami Beach and commit any crime, even a little crime. You will be arrested. You will be prosecuted. And that’s the message I want to start sending out to the criminal community and through action that this isn’t a city that you can come to and engage in crime because we’re hard on crime. We’re going to arrest. We’re going to be tough.”
 
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “First, I believe that this perception of increased crime – and I think we’re all on the same page – is a serious concern. People have to feel safe and we’re getting more of this than we like. That’s why we need to do something and I think what the Chief laid out is a potential path forward.”
 
He acknowledged the UCR crime data which consists of victim reported violent crimes is down double digits, a rate that is “almost identical to Miami and Florida.” While he said, “one is too many,” he noted the “serious reported crimes are down but we’re also hearing more from the community.”
 
“I think the focus on the Entertainment District and Ocean Drive is appropriate,” Samuelian said. He echoed Rosen Gonzalez that he didn’t want to take officers from other areas but said, “I like many of the ideas that I heard.”
 
As the discussion continued, Góngora said, “We started out focusing on the Entertainment District but I think the point that you made Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez is that the residents in the Flamingo Park neighborhood are now the ones driving it and I don’t think that they’re hanging out on Ocean Drive. Now the perception is that the crime has moved into the residential neighborhood.”
 
Rosen Gonzalez followed up, “I know what your data says… more and more often, [the crimes] are happening on Lincoln Road and in the Historic District.” Perhaps underscoring the perception issue, she mentioned a couple of recent crimes that she thought had occurred at night or in the Flamingo Park area and asked Oates to park marked cars in the neighborhood. Oates noted one of the events had occurred during the day, the other in the north end of the City.
 
“I am very familiar with every major crime that happens in this City," he said. "There is no pocket of substantial violent major crime in any one pocket of the City right now. We’re doing very, very well on crime itself. Our challenge is perception and we’ve talked in the past about some of the issues related to that… there’s about four Facebook pages that didn’t exist a year and a half ago, two years ago, and a lot of the social media emphasis sort of magnifies these events. We regularly meet – and I think you’ve all attended at least one crime strategy meeting that we have – where we literally look at the pin map and the dots for individual crimes and we deploy resources in response to that.”
 
Commissioner John Alemán, who is not a voting member of the Committee, said “We have double digit reduction in the UCR crimes which are the victim reported violent crimes which are down double digits, not just this year but the year before which is geometric. We shrunk the pie and we took another percentage. It’s amazing and we’re probably not doing a good enough job of marketing that. The world of social media, it really does skew things, and shines a light and amplifies things that are sometimes quite small.”
 
“I agree with what [Commissioner] Samuelian says,” she continued. “Any one of them is too many for us … but we should recognize the dramatic reduction in those UCR-type crimes and I personally want to thank our Miami Beach Police officers for being the vehicle, the men and women in the Police Department for doing that. Please relay my appreciation because I know sometimes they hear us, you know, chew on, struggle with, perception and crime and it could be demotivating to them. So, I certainly want to appreciate them,” she told Oates.
 
“I’m also really crossing my fingers for the General Obligation Bond, the public safety piece that has the cameras, the license plate readers,” Alemán said. “You’re picking up stolen vehicles, people with warrants every week through those license plate readers. So, the more of that we can get, the trove of weapons that we see, you taking photos of, that you’re picking up because of the license plate readers that are in the General Obligation Bond… I think we want to give you all the tools possible.”
 
“Last month the Committee asked you to focus on that perception problem and to address beach thefts, in particular, and to address street petty drug dealing, specifically and so you have organized from your presentation a really tight response,” she said to Oates. “You stuck yourself right in the middle of the hot spot so thank you for doing that. I think we need to give you time to wedge in there and get that done. We want to support you on that… I’m not a voting member of this Committee, but whatever comes back to Commission, I would be supportive of your request for a captain” for the overnights out of the current budget.
 
Rosen Gonzalez said, “I don’t think it’s a social media problem, I think it’s a fear problem… people are talking about it.”  She added she would support the overnight executive “if it’s not more money.”
 
Resident Michael Sherman who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue a block from Lincoln Road and who works for a retailer on Lincoln Road said he sees people on a regular basis who are coming in to replace stolen devices. He personally has been the victim of a robbery at gunpoint as he was leaving his apartment at 5:45 am to go to the airport.
 
Sherman said he wanted to remind the Committee that “The Entertainment District is also a neighborhood and there’s a lot of us that live in that neighborhood.”
 
“First of all, I’d like to say Chief Oates, I really respect you and I think you’ve done a marvelous job,” he said. “I know specifically a little bit more about what you’re facing [now] and I’d also like to speak on that,” he said turning to the Committee. “I’d like you guys to consider his proposal” for the overnight executive.
 
Detailing what happens in his neighborhood, he said, “Oftentimes when I come out of my apartment I find shopping bags and purses that are empty that were obviously taken from people when they were dining or on Lincoln Road and then the contents were removed and they were thrown into my bushes and hedges.” He said that has occurred on “probably 15-20 occasions” within the last 24 months.
 
“I have people coming into my place of business that are replacing thousand dollar devices in tears. Their entire vacations have been ruined,” he added. “It’s not just because of the beach theft. It’s also because now the robberies are happening in the daytime.”
 
“They’re not just statistics,” he said. “I’d like to bring a personal face to all of this."
 
Góngora told him, “We are addressing this issue… we are focusing on giving our Police Department really whatever resources they ask us for. We usually give them everything that they ask for to try to keep our city safe… Public safety is number one… We are focused on it. We hear your concerns and we are working on solutions.”
 
“We’re aware of the problem and we’re trying to do everything we can with the resources we have,” Rosen Gonzalez added.
 
Sherman responded, “I think you’re doing a great job. I just would like to make sure that we focus more on the people, like you say, and a little less on the minutia [such as where to park cars] and kind of give him [Oates] all the money and resources that he needs.”
 
Ceci Velasco, Executive Director of the Ocean Drive Association, said the Association supports the addition of the overnight supervisor. “I think it’s important that we never relax our vigilance over life safety issues,” she told the Committee. “I think one of the single most important things that this Commission can do is to hire that captain and have an executive administrator on duty in the peak hours.”
 
“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” she said. “You can tell the difference – [Entertainment District supervisor] Captain Robinson is excellent. You can tell the difference when the Chief is out there, Captain Robinson is out there and when he’s off. He can’t work seven days a week, 24/7. You can tell a distinct difference to having an executive on that can make deployment issues, that can change strategies, that can move people around, that can focus priorities than when somebody is off. That would be one of the most important things.” 
 
Following Velasco’s comments, the Committee voted to endorse the Chief’s proposal.
 
Closing out the public comment was Ray Breslin, president of the Collins Park Neighborhood Association who underscored one of the key challenges facing the City’s Police Department and prosecutors. “What most people don’t realize is that we’re a resort town so these predators come looking for the tourists,” he said. “A lot of the tourists get robbed and don’t report it because they’re already embarrassed. They’re not going to take their time to fill out a police report because they’re not going to get their property back. We can’t prosecute the people because those people that got robbed are in another country and they’re not going to come back for a trial. Those are all things that are affecting the Police Department, Chief Oates, from being able to do what they need to do.”
 
The discussion is a standing item on the Neighborhoods agenda for now so there will be more next month.
 
 

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