A number of groups voiced their disapproval at Tuesday’s South Miami commission meeting over the suspension of a Feb. 21 DUI checkpoint.
The checkpoint, planned from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. for Dixie Highway and SW 62nd Avenue, was suspended in favor of “police saturation,” according to Police Chief Rene Landa.
Representatives from the South Miami Drug Free Coalition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the South Miami Hospital, and locals spoke to the commission, bringing various statistics and stories relating to crime and fatalities resulting from driving under the influence.
According to the MADD website, there were 697 drunk driving fatalities and 53,664 DUI arrests in 2012 in Florida.
After hearing the commission’s concerns about the announced checkpoint at its Feb. 18 meeting, Chief Landa and City Manager Steven Alexander discussed whether or not to have the checkpoint.
“It had been controversial to members of the commission previously,” Alexander said. “They had gotten a lot of complaints and they were concerned on a lot of fronts. There was discomfort from the staff and commission for years on how the police administration was running that program. They didn’t know when one was coming and when I announced it, it was clear that they were disturbed by it.”
The South Miami Police Department plans to do four DUI checkpoints and six saturations each year. Saturation involves a sergeant and seven or eight police officers driving into an area looking for reckless or careless driving and possible DUI. A proper DUI checkpoint requires 25-30 officers. Landa said in most checkpoints officers also give out hundreds of pamphlets that warn about the dangers of drunk driving.
Landa, who became the permanent police chief Feb. 21, said a number of factors went into the change from checkpoint to saturation.
“There were a lot of things going on during that time,” Landa said. “There was a new commission, there was a new chief of police. What we were doing was discussing all of the issues involved in this and what was involved in the past. We were kind of doing this quickly and the commission wanted to sit down and discuss this issue. I decided to do a saturation, that is not that complicated, and do checkpoints later on.”
Mayor Philip Stoddard said the checkpoints are not popular with South Miami residents or the commission.
“We are under a lot of pressure from our residents to provide good police services,” Stoddard said. “The checkpoints don’t produce a lot of DUI arrests, in fact they produce very little. The cops don’t care for them either. The cops prefer saturation patrols because they feel like they are more effective.”
Stoddard also said putting officers on a DUI checkpoint requires taking policemen off of the streets and providing them with comp time.
“In order to be effective you need a big PR campaign,” Stoddard said. “I would say the PR campaign is 80 percent of what makes them work. The DUI checkpoints themselves are just to reinforce the campaign.
“(The city manager and I) didn’t have to talk about this extensively because we both understood that we hadn’t seen significant publicity around this thing. We both know that in order for checkpoints to work it has to be part of a coordinated campaign. We both knew for the checkpoint to be effective it had to be done better.”
Stoddard added that he wants to see a regional plan and a countywide program with a map and schedule of the checkpoints that dictates South Miami’s role.
“I want to see what the publicity will be and where the resources are coming from,” Stoddard said. “What is the cost to our (residents) in terms of policing time? That to me is me being accountable to the residents. We have to make sure that their resources are being used wisely.”
Landa said the South Miami police will partake in a DUI checkpoint on March 17 in Coral Gables.
“It’s a city administration issue when we do it but we try and reflect the desires of the commission,” Alexander said. “After all, we are the employees and they’re the policy makers. If they believe there is something they are not happy with, it doesn’t mean we will throw the baby out with the bath water but does mean we will show proper communication.”
Alexander said there was no commission vote involved and he made the decision.
“(Alexander) is in charge of the police,” Stoddard said. “We set policy. This is sort of a question: Would you say it’s operations or policy? We wouldn’t necessarily say this checkpoint can go or that checkpoint can’t go, although we could by resolution. We can do anything by resolution. We don’t mess with operational decisions. We don’t tell the department how to do its job.”