Miami-Dade County

In Miami-Dade mayoral race, a clash over police spending

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, and county police chief Juan Perez, outside apartment complex where 6-year-old King Carter was killed, in North West Miami on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, and county police chief Juan Perez, outside apartment complex where 6-year-old King Carter was killed, in North West Miami on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. Miami Herald

A teenager was shot dead during daylight hours in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood on a Wednesday in February. Less than 24 hours later, Raquel Regalado emailed supporters with a grim message: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a mayor that helps prevent the killing of children instead of one that makes excuses?”

The Feb. 25 broadside sparked outrage from the reelection campaign of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, then in the early stages of a primary challenge by Regalado, a school board member. A Gimenez spokesman blasted Regalado for politicizing a child’s death, calling it a “shameful” distorting of the mayor’s “life-long commitment to keeping our streets safe.”

While a minor scrimmage in the increasingly bitter fight between the five-year incumbent mayor and the daughter of Miami’s mayor, the back-and-forth captured a potentially crucial divide in this November’s mayoral election.

Gimenez’s disappointing showing in primarily black districts cost him an outright win in the Aug. 30 primary, forcing him into a fall contest with Regalado. A May poll showed youth violence the overwhelming choice of black voters asked to name their top concern for Miami-Dade County. Hispanic voters picked the economy, and non-Hispanic white voters picked traffic.

“Crime is the top concern in my district,” said Audrey Edmonson, a Miami-Dade commissioner who said she is staying neutral in the mayoral race. Edmonson represents some of the neighborhoods in Miami and the surrounding county areas where gunfire is common, including Liberty City. “No one seems to know what the solution is.”

Behind the politics sits the most searing, emotional element of local government in recent years: police efforts to prevent an ongoing rash of youth deaths by gunfire. The emblem of the crisis remains King Carter, the 6-year-old gunned down in February after being caught in the crossfire of two teenagers while he walked to a store in North Miami-Dade to buy candy.

Gimenez, a former Miami city manager, highlights increased numbers of patrol officers in the 4,000-person county police force and his advocacy of using body cameras to monitor police conduct. The county police department graduated a record 140 cadets in its training program last month.

“There are more police officers on the streets of Miami-Dade County now than there were before,” Gimenez told Jim DeFede during an Oct. 9 debate with Regalado on WFOR CBS4’s “Facing South Florida” program. “We don’t have as many police [staffers] because we took down some of the bureaucracy when I became the mayor.”

“There used to be 15 people in the property bureau — 15 sergeants,” he continued. “We put them back on the street.”

Regalado criticizes Gimenez for his emphasis on expanding patrol ranks with new cadets, rather than boosting the county’s detective bureaus. “Putting all these officers on the street was not the solution,” she said during the CBS4 debate. She pointed to the police department’s 2017 target of clearing just 40 percent of its homicide and sexual-assault cases. “We are not investigating and closing cases,” she said.

Body cameras form a central plank of Gimenez’s law-enforcement platform. In 2014, he proposed Miami-Dade spend $1 million buying hundreds of them, months before they became a national cause on the heels of an unarmed black teenager being shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gimenez is a former Miami fire chief who started as an armed paramedic on the city’s SWAT team in the 1970s. In pitching body cameras, Gimenez recalled taking a break during the 1980 McDuffie Riots, named for the black insurance agent beaten by white police officers.

“I looked back and there were like 25 major fires. It was like a war zone. That image has always stuck with me. I never wanted that to happen again in the city,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald Editorial Board in August. “I believe you’re going to get a much better chance of justice if you saw what the police officer saw.”

Regalado, a former practicing attorney, portrays body cameras as a luxury for a department where the money — about $1.2 million in equipment costs this year plus 12 new staffers — would be better spent boosting ranks needed to fight crime.

“The body cameras aren’t saving kids,” she said in an interview. “When we solve that, we can spend the money on body cameras.”

When Gimenez took office in 2011, his first budget required Miami-Dade to accelerate spending reductions because of a 12 percent cut in property-tax rates that was the centerpiece of the then-county commissioner’s mayoral campaign. The rate cut reversed a hike by Gimenez’s predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, a former county police chief who was ousted in a historic recall election at a time when the Miami-Dade economy and real estate values were both in freefall.

Police staffing was already on a decline during the recession-driven budget cuts that began in 2009, according to employment figures provided by the county police union. Sworn county police officers not on contract to a city, PortMiami or Miami International Airport peaked that year at 2,771. That number dropped every year after, to a low of 2,261 in 2015. Overall, police staffing is down from 4,373 during Alvarez’s last year to 4,074 in Gimenez’s 2017 budget, a nearly 7 percent drop.

Cost-saving measures included consolidation of some detective squads. Gang-unit detectives were assigned to homicide task forces investigating street violence in the northern and southern ends of the county. In August, the two bureaus were consolidated into the Homicide Street Violence Task Force. Police administrators said folding the gang squad into the homicide task force made sense because so many murder investigations intersected with gang activity.

John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association union, described the shifts as a budget-driven triage that devotes payroll dollars to murders — rather than beefing up policing at all levels. “The bad guys know the heat’s not on right now,” he said. “They know they can roam the streets.”

The Gimenez administration points to crime statistics as the ultimate measure of the county’s policing approach. Between 2011 and 2015, major crime offenses per 100,000 residents dropped 20 percent, according to FBI statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Despite increased hiring in recent years, the Miami-Dade police department is contending with a wave of early retirements tied to changing benefits in the state’s pension system. That helps explain why Miami-Dade’s police budget projects $16 million in attrition savings from 133 sworn-officer vacancies and 25 empty civilian posts.

Overall, the police department’s $629 million budget is up 7 percent in 2017. The bulk of the increase covers a 4 percent salary increase granted union workers across the county from labor talks with the Gimenez administration.

The police department’s budget is the highest in county government, and 85 percent of the cost comes from payroll. Regalado hasn’t detailed where she would find the funds to boost police hiring, beyond pursuing more state and federal grants and decriminalizing some minor offenses, such as driving with a suspended license.

“There’s a lot of money you can free up,” she said. “I don’t think we need higher property taxes.”

County Commissioner Dennis Moss represents a southern Miami-Dade district that includes Perrine, a community plagued by gang-related shootings. He said he recognizes budget restraints on police, but ties them to a broader spending adjustment from the boom days of the real estate market.

“My assessment is they are doing a good job with the resources they have,” he said. “Would I like to have additional funding for police? I’d like to have additional funding for parks, too. But the residents of Miami-Dade are only willing to pay the taxes they are willing to pay.”