The city of Opa-locka, trying to crawl back from debilitating graft and scandal, is facing yet another complication: Many officers in its depleted police force are complaining about low pay, old equipment and crummy working conditions. Set among the warehouses that line industrial Ali Baba Avenue, police headquarters leaks rain water and grows mold. The grass out front needs to be cut.
It was so bad that last week the department took up temporary residence across town on the third floor of City Hall, even as more officers are threatening to leave a department that already lost almost a quarter of its staff two years ago when a state financial oversight board imposed citywide austerity cuts to try and salvage its budget.
“You have officers with ripped pants and ripped shirts,” said one Opa-locka cop with more than two decades of experience who said he’s on a short list for a job in neighboring Miami Gardens. “We don’t have enough equipment to function. The officers are just disgruntled and they’re leaving the police department and going to other departments.”
Said another Opa-locka cop: “Officers are trying to leave in mass exodus.”
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The Miami Herald spoke to six of the city’s 42 sworn personnel for this story. None were willing to disclose their names out of fear of retaliation.
Andrew Axelrad is the attorney for Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association charged with negotiating the police department’s contract with the city. It hasn’t been renewed in several years. Axelrad said he doesn’t find it surprising that officers dealing with low pay, old equipment, a shrunken staff and high crime are discontent.
“They do more with less than probably any department in the county,” Axelrad said. “And they’re out there preventing crime under those circumstances.”
The concerns about the department have seeped into the narrative between officers and Opa-locka Police Chief James Dobson. One senior officer who wasn’t willing to give his name said there were so many cars in the shop last week when two Florida International University students were shot in Opa-locka that it took a long time for backup to get to the scene, unfurl police tape and set up a perimeter.
“It could be the difference between someone living and dying,” said the officer.
Dobson, however, disputed the claim. He said officers and detectives were there within minutes and the scene was secured properly.
“We had detectives out there. I was out there. I have no clue where that came from. None of that is true,” said the chief.
Dobson said he’d like to add some officers and increase their pay, but he refutes claims that officers aren’t receiving working equipment and aren’t being paid overtime in a timely fashion.
“People know what they’re getting themselves into when they apply here,” said Dobson. “I know I’m the lowest paid chief in South Florida. But I knew that when I took the job. I wish I could pay officers more money and I wish I could give them take-home vehicles.”
His wish list: A crime prevention squad, a bike patrol, new cop cars and a new police station.
“We have to change what people see and say in Opa-locka,” said Dobson. “And we’re changing the face of the department.”
The department’s problems are a direct offshoot of a city that three years ago was near breaking point: Federal investigators had raided City Hall and city leaders were caught shaking down business owners and jailed. A commissioner had committed suicide. The city with the highest tax rate in Florida was millions of dollars in debt and near bankruptcy.
Three years later, a state-installed financial oversight board still controls all the city’s purse strings.
Amidst all this, the police department was forced to slash its budget by almost 20 percent, from $6.6 million to $5.4. Ten positions were eliminated and have yet to be filled, leaving the unit undermanned with only 42 sworn officers. At its peak, Opa-locka had 57 sworn officers. All the cops who remained on the payroll were forced to take a 10 percent pay cut. Many of the cars they drive are donated and well-worn with more than 100,000 miles on them.
Dobson said the state’s oversight board found deficiencies in the property and evidence rooms and fixes have been put in place. He also said when the oversight board assessed the department in 2016 they found it was top heavy, and four corporals, three majors and two lieutenants were either demoted or removed.
Those positions have never been filled. The city’s starting police salary of $38,000 is considerably lower than most other municipalities that usually start in the $45,000-a-year range.
The cuts have had a tangible affect: On average, Opa-locka police respond to calls in 7 minutes, an unusually long time in a city with a substantial crime rate. Dobson says he’d like that number closer to 3 minutes. Also, the Northwest Miami-Dade city’s crime statistics don’t hold up very well when compared to other municipalities with similar populations in the county.
The most recent numbers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show Opa-locka’s overall crime rate dropped almost 13 percent in 2017, following a trend throughout most of Miami-Dade. Still, the city of 18,000 residents had four murders, nine rapes, 87 robberies and 225 aggravated assaults.
Crime statistics for comparably populated cities in Miami-Dade appear significantly better. Hialeah Gardens, with about 30 percent more residents, had no murders, 11 robberies and only 21 aggravated assaults. And in Sweetwater, with a more similar population to Opa-locka, the crime statistics were also lower. In 2017, the FDLE statistics show, Sweetwater had no murders, 10 robberies and 26 aggravated assaults.
Steve Shiver, whose appointment as city manager in Opa-locka in 2015 lasted all of three months before he was forced out by Mayor Myra Taylor, said there were so many problems surrounding the department, it was just a matter of time until officer’s began applying for higher paying jobs.
“It was all money issues and corruption,” said Shiver.
Frank Rollason is Miami-Dade’s Director of the Office of Emergency Management and the person on the state-appointed financial oversight board who reviews all invoices for Opa-locka. He said a few years back, when he was village manager of North Bay Village, they sent two patrol cars to Opa-locka. Rollason said a major obstacle for Opa-locka’s police department is, in its current state, it’s not attracting a lot of job candidates.
“Their problems will be solved with money,” said Rollason. “They don’t have it to entice people to come. There’s no vision.”
Opa-locka Commissioner Matthew Pigatt is running for mayor in November, when Taylor’s term expires. He doesn’t share the sentiment of the cops who spoke out against the police department. Pigatt calls the drop in the crime rate, significant and said a new directive for officer’s to drive around town with their windows down is having the desired effect.
“It’s community policing. Getting out there and being seen,” Pigatt said. “Patrolling the streets with their windows down. That’s the directive. At the end of the day there needs to be much more trust from the community with our police department.”