The past few months have done major damage to the image of Miami Gardens and the leadership of Mayor Oliver Gilbert.
Since July there have been multiple shooting incidents and homicides in the city, including a police-involved shooting in the midst of a violent 11-day span in which 10 people were shot.
Most recently, the city, its police department and employees have been sued in federal court by a local store owner and his customers and employees who, in stories and videos published by the Miami Herald, alleged multiple incidents of harassment and racial profiling by police officers.
Gilbert said that the establishment of the Miami Gardens police department, in 2007, could have been planned better and may have been rushed.
“I think that in hindsight, I probably would have done it a little differently,” Gilbert said. “I would have done the transition a little slower to do some overlap with Miami-Dade PD.”
The mayor wasn’t on the council that decided to create the department, and he thinks the city should have hired more officers who live in Miami Gardens rather than focusing on bringing in experienced outsiders. He said that part of the reason for mistrust of the police and community apathy is that many officers policing the city aren’t residents.
“I understand their emphasis on hiring all certified officers, they wanted people who could hit the streets with experience, that caused them to reach out to jurisdictions all across the country,” said Gilbert.
The city budgeted to hire 10 new officers in the coming year, and the mayor wants them to live in Miami Gardens.
“Our sole focus is hiring people who actually live here, that reflects the underlying policy goal that I have and belief that I have that people who live here have a greater interest in the things that happen here,” Gilbert said. “Even when a police officer is not on duty, his car at home can prevent crime on your streets.”
In the meantime, the City Council voted to increase the city’s proposed general obligation bond by $10 million to add surveillance cameras and additional license-plate readers to bolster the city’s force, which currently has 212 officers.
“Even if somebody’s not watching real time, the people who are committing the crime know that someone’s watching, and they don’t want to get caught,” said Gilbert.
Despite the allegations of harassment by MGPD officers, the city plans to continue its “zero tolerance policy” on crime and illegal activity in the city. Some residents, like Cleveland Boyer, think it’s still the right approach.
“Miami Gardens’ force is small, they need to ask for assistance to get more help in here, more manpower, to let the bad guys know that there’s always somebody watching them,” said Boyer.
The mayor believes that the city can continue strict law enforcement and still gain the trust of the community moving forward.
“You can be a tough policeman and not be disrespectful, rude or violate somebody’s rights,” Gilbert said. “I was a prosecutor and I would send people to prison, but I was never disrespectful.”
Moving forward the city also plans to hire an internal trainer for city employees and the police department, to focus on how they deal with residents including sensitivity training for officers.
Gary Feinberg, a sociology professor at St. Thomas University, thinks that the tough approach may ultimately be detrimental to the city.
“Sometimes what you do to control one crime escalates another crime and to build policy or to make major changes because of an anomaly is a dangerous way of running a city or a country,” said Feinberg. “The professional community, generally speaking, understands that getting tough on crime may placate a naive public, but it doesn’t actually reduce crime.”
Gilbert remains optimistic about the steps the 10-year-old city is taking and says that in the next decade he believes Miami Gardens will live up to its standing as the third-largest city in the county.
“We will be a younger city, we will attract younger professionals,” Gilbert said. “A lot of what’s happened in the first 10 years is a modification of expectations.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.