For longtime residents of Miami-Dade County, the latest reports of corruption and dysfunction within the Opa-locka Police Department carry a distinct echo of the past. The names and faces change, as a former department officer said, but the city remains chronically unable to clean up its police force or its reputation as a place where criminal activity thrives and rogue police officers flourish.
This community of roughly 16,000 in north-central Miami-Dade, one of 35 municipalities in the county, has a long and sad history when it comes to crime. In the previous decade, it led the FBI’s hit parade for the highest rate of violent crime in cities of its size for several years running.
It hasn’t gotten much better. No city administration has been able to clean up the mess. City Hall has been wracked by its own scandals among elected officials and revolving-door administrations.
For the most part, state and county officials have been content to look the other way.
Seven years ago, then-County Manager George Burgess prepared a report for Commissioner Barbara Jordan over the projected annual cost of police services if the county were to replace the local force. Ms. Jordan acted after county police set up a special two-week patrol in Opa-locka in the wake of the shooting death of a 5-year-old girl that sparked yet another round of criticism of the police force, then composed of 37 members.
At the time, citizens complained that local police were weak and ineffective and that criminals had no fear of the force.
The report concluded that it would cost almost $7 million, or more than double the $3.2 million Opa-locka taxpayers were paying at the time, to have the county take over. Apparently, all sides decided that the costs made the move impractical.
And there things have stood, more or less, since 2005. There have been occasional signs of progress, including grants from the Department of Justice to hire more police officers for limited time periods, expending the permanent force, and optimistic declarations by a parade of city leaders about “turning the page.”
But somehow, they just can’t seem to get it done. The city’s crime rate remains among the highest in the state for communities its size.
Last Sunday’s depressing front-page story by Herald reporter Julie K. Brown found that the streets of Opa-locka can’t be cleaned up because the police force itself is tarnished. Last year alone, there were 41 internal affairs investigations on today’s 58-member force.
The investigation of former Captain Arthur Balom, who is in jail awaiting trial for abetting a fatal 2010 armored car heist, is only one of many federal, state and local investigations into possible corruption within the Opa-locka department.
Is the force beyond repair?
Certainly there are good officers on the force, and Deputy Chief Antonio Sanchez says the administration “is committed to higher standards.” But it’s not likely that the city can do it alone.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement should turn to its Criminal Justice & Standards Commission to provide help. If the state refuses to take over the force — an idea that’s been considered — that doesn’t mean it has to stand by idly at the expense of Opa-locka’s helpless citizens.
The county shouldn’t ignore the problem, either. This is happening in our own backyard. If nothing is done now, chances are that Opa-locka’s police force, left alone, will be just as dysfunctional 10 years from now as it is today.