Miami Beach Crime Prevention Group Making an Impact

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Crime Prevention Group Making an Impact:

effort  succeeding in taking repeat offenders off the city's streets

How successful is the new Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness group? Apparently successful enough that a public defender tried to block testimony from one of the group’s members to keep a repeat offender from walking out onto the street with a slap on the wrist.
 
The private Facebook group was spun out of the popular Clean Up Miami Beach group in July. Already, it has gained nearly 1,300 members along with the respect of the Miami Beach Police Department, not to mention some real wins in bond court to prevent habitual criminals from just jumping on a bus to return to the Beach.
 
Which brings us back to the story of the public defender. Donnie Sims, arrested for theft of a Citibike, thanks to the efforts of the crime group, appeared in bond court this weekend. It was Sims 11th arrest in 12 months, his third since an arrest in August which resulted in a conviction for Grand Theft. The public defender didn’t want any members of the group testifying, arguing that since they were neither victims nor witnesses, they had no standing. Judge Mindy Glaser allowed the testimony and Sims was given bond of $10,000, double the normal amount for Grand Theft, and an additional $1,000 for resisting arrest without violence.
 
The crime prevention initiative grew out of an experience that retired investigative reporter John Deutzman had with a “lurker” on the beachwalk around 18th Street in the spring of 2016. “I was out for an evening stroll about 10 at night and ran into one of my neighbors around 18th and the beachwalk,” Deutzman told RE:MiamiBeach. “Two of these lurker types went by us and gave my neighbor, a female, a dirty look and then they came back and started verbally harassing us. It escalated to where we had to call 911.”
 
“From that point forward I was very curious what these people were all about out there,” he explained. “My instincts were that these guys were all criminals just based on the vibe I got but I didn’t have any proof of that.”
 
He went to work using his investigative reporting skills. “I was able to determine that the gang of people that were hanging out, particularly around the 21st street bathroom area and 20th street near the beachwalk, they were all criminals.” Initially, he said, his concerns were “dismissed as ‘they’re all a bunch of homeless’ and I proved they were all a bunch of criminals.” While they may be homeless, Deutzman said, the bigger issue is they are committing crimes against residents and tourists and being returned to commit more crimes over and over again. Some have more than one hundred arrests.
 
Deutzman says he met with a lot of resistance in the beginning. “After my suspicions grew about the crowd out there, I went to a homeless meeting in 2016 and I told them there was a bunch of criminals out there mixing with your homeless.” It was “not a warm reception”, he said. And, then, came what Deutzman described as “our worst incident ever in a long while, a woman raped at knifepoint with a box cutter at 21st Street on the sand. That was one of those ‘I told you so’ things and not in a good way. I thought that was enough to get everyone’s attention but no.”
 
After having success “just nagging police to clean up 20th and 21st”, I decided why not use my skills to get rid of this problem,” he said. “This area that I’m dealing with is the hornets nest of all of these criminals – all the beach thieves, drug dealers, disorderly intoxicated people harassing all the tourists – and I thought if I could knock this out I would be doing a service here.”
 
Deutzman started posting his observations and statistics in the Clean Up Miami Beach group on Facebook. Eventually that group’s founder, Michael DeFilippi, said, “It reached a tipping point to where I said ‘This stuff is awesome, it’s incredible. There’s so much to talk about that it needs its own group.’” So he and Deutzman created the Crime Prevention and Awareness group. It is informative, sometimes gritty, and laser focused on bringing the community together to make change.
 
Informal patrols keep an eye on high crime areas, reporting suspicious activity and the return of any criminals with “stay away” orders. Since mid-September, members of the group have been showing up in bond court where repeat offenders often walk with time served, usually one or two days. So far, the group has a 100% success rate in keeping cases from being pled out or disposed of in bond court, which was probably not lost on the public defender representing Sims.
 
A big part of the issue, Deutzman said, is the nature of the system itself. During the week, there are rotational judges in misdemeanor bond court (versus felony bond court where one judge generally presides), which can result in inconsistent rulings and a lack of familiarity with chronic offenders. Prosecutors “have a big stack of papers that they have to clear out by lunchtime or before court closes for the day. Their goal is to get rid of the pieces of paper and we’re trying to bring out one character to the top of that stack of papers so they pay attention.”
 
It’s not unusual for cases to be pled out, Deutzman said. “Only about 3% of cases go to trial. The problem is with misdemeanors. They’re being pled out with bond court with credit of time served, two days … The purpose of bond court is to set a bond, determine is this person a danger to the community, a flight risk.” There could be a plea deal later, he said, but bond court isn’t the place to do that.
 
This week, the group sent a “demand letter for proper sentencing of habitual offenders” to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit of Florida Bertila Soto, and Interim Director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Daniel Junior. The letter calls attention to what the group calls “an intolerable number of people who are arrested multiple times a year and are rarely confined to jail more than the time it takes them to see a bond judge (usually one day).”
 
According to the group’s research from 2016, “despite the potential maximum sentences of sixty (60) days to one year, an unconscionable 98.3% of those arrested in Miami Beach [for misdemeanors] have their cases disposed of in bond court or very early in the case. Many simply turn around and hop on a bus back to the Beach and lurk in our tourist areas, where they don’t fear any consequences for repeating their unlawful behavior, and where they immediately resume preying on residents and tourists just as before.” [Emphasis as written in the group’s letter.]
 
The group demands “recent and lifetime criminal history” of a defendant be considered in bond hearings; in cases where probable cause is found, the group wants those with a high number of arrests held to the standard bond for their charges and have their cases set for trial; and they seek consideration for the “frequent offender’s damage to the community” in all subsequent agreements and sentencing.
 
With regard to sentencing, the group demands “strict adherence and attention to Florida [law] regarding habitual misdemeanor offenders, which requires a minimum sentence of six months imprisonment, or a minimum of six months of rehabilitation for those who qualify” and “strict adherence and attention” to the Florida law “which calls for enhanced sentencing for habitual felony offenders who qualify”.
 
The group writes “We estimate that the number of our habitual offenders who require stiffer sentencing to be sixty (60) people, or less” and with what they say are more than 500 available beds in County jails on any given day, incarcerating these habitual offenders “would not overburden the system”.
 
Finally, the group takes aim at the rotational judge policy for misdemeanor bond court hearings. “[I]f one judge sat consistently in misdemeanor bond court, that judge would repeatedly encounter the individuals who are chronic habitual offenders and we believe would have a better grasp of how damaging this is to the community.”
 
While the letter is a list of demands, the group works hard to keep things positive. “We’re working together with the police and the State Attorney,” Deutzman said. “We have a good connection now in the State Attorney’s office that’s focusing on these misdemeanor cases with us.”
 
And, now, there is a prosecutor paid for by the City of Miami Beach to focus on the habitual offenders. Proposed by former Commissioner Michael Grieco, the group used its influence to support the position which was funded with the beginning of the fiscal year in October. Deutzman shared the group’s research and information and then let the new prosecutor know the group expects him to take a tough stance. “I told him directly ‘We lobbied and fought for your job and we expect an aggressive prosecutor not a wishy-washy combination prosecutor/defense attorney.’ In my opinion that has been the City’s position in the past, worried about lawsuits, etc. A good prosecutor, good cop is supposed to consider the other side. If there’s something glaring that says ‘Oh shit, this isn’t a cool arrest’, they’re supposed to ethically stop it. But there’s a difference in that and folding in every case.”
 
The group’s relationship with the Police Department has grown into one of mutual respect and cooperation. “The police have been great,” Deutzman said. “They’ve been very cooperative.” He said when he first starting talking with members of the department about what could be done to fix the crime situation, he heard “unanimously, the biggest frustration [is] ‘we arrest them and they’re out in a couple of days’. I didn’t want to take anybody’s word for it because that can become an excuse for why things aren’t happening but the stats bear it out.”
 
When the group has testified in bond court, the repeat offenders have all received higher bonds, extra days in jail and, when appropriate, treatment. In addition to the Police Department, City Commissioners and the criminals themselves have taken note.
 
“Anecdotal evidence from the police and [park] rangers is Lummus Park is really thinning out right now,” Deutzman said. “It’s getting better.”
 
Jeff Feldman, one of the group’s board members and a regular bond court attendee, said, “We’re getting their attention … we’re getting the attention of the repeat criminals. They all talk to each other. They’re feeling the heat.”
 
With regard to the group’s results, Feldman said, “I’m not surprised we were successful. I’m just surprised how quickly we have become extremely successful. I would say we have been extremely successful. We’ve batted a thousand so far in terms of not having the typical case disposed of in bond court, the guy on the street the next day.”
 
DeFilippi, who serves as the group’s president, agreed. “It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s very promising and I think we’re going to have a huge impact on our community and I think it will be felt beyond Miami Beach as other communities learn what we’re doing here. I think we’re really going to help change a system that’s been in place for many years. Frankly, it’s broken so I’m proud of the successes.”
 
Like Deutzman, DeFilippi praised the Police Department. “I’m very happy that the Police Department has really engaged us and accepted us for our genuine intentions because they’re excellent players in all of this. We’re very pro police. We’re very supportive of what they do. We make that very clear in the group. If someone questions the police efforts, we tell them this is not for you and we’ve let them go.”
 
Case in point, Deutzman recently welcomed 60 new members to the group saying “We have an excellent relationship with our Police Department and we are working as a team to attack our problem of repeat offenders. This is not a police bashing site. We have members who work on all levels of local Government and while many do not comment, most of them read our material. Remember there’s a difference between holding our leaders accountable and attacking them.”
 
Feldman noted, “We’re getting the attention and the support of the City Commissioners, of political candidates, and a tremendous amount of support from the Police Department. At the end of the day we’re all working together and our group is filling a void that is not necessarily the responsibility of the government or of the Police Department. It’s its own space that we have discovered needed to be filled and so we’re doing things to support the Police Department and for them to support us and to support the City Commission and for them to support us. We’re all working together.”
 
Just as Deutzman was clear about the expectations for the new prosecutor, Feldman was equally strong in reinforcing the touch on crime message. “Our group is absolutely apolitical. There’s no blame for how we got here. There’s no blame to the current administration or the Police Department. It is a true joint venture in working towards solutions. However, it’s our intention to continue to grow our group so that when the time comes that we have political candidates in our city, those who do not support our mission of being tough on crime will not win.”
 

Photo: Michael DeFilippi

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