Miami-Dade County

With suburban schools to guard, police cut patrols in a dangerous Miami neighborhood

Ride-along with Miami Dade Police Department

Miami-Dade cut police patrols in the Northside district outside of Miami in August. The county said it couldn’t afford the extra police and send officers to guard schools, as Florida required after the Parkland massacre.
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Miami-Dade cut police patrols in the Northside district outside of Miami in August. The county said it couldn’t afford the extra police and send officers to guard schools, as Florida required after the Parkland massacre.

When chronic gunfire turned particularly dangerous in and around Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood last spring, local police flooded the area with extra patrols dubbed operation Blue and Brown to discourage trouble in the streets.

The flood ended in August, when county officers pulled back in the midst of a $20 million deployment to guard schools across the county under new requirements imposed by Florida after the Parkland massacre. The drastic cuts implemented Aug. 19 — from 16 county officers per shift on the Blue and Brown routes to just four — were needed “to ensure the availability of personnel required to staff the school initiative,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote in a December memo.

Miami-Dade’s shift of policing resources from a high-crime area in the county’s Northside district to dozens of suburban elementary schools illustrates the rapid shift in priorities required by Florida’s post-Parkland legislation. With armed security now required at every school, the county school board helped convince voters to increase property taxes to fund a major expansion of the school system’s own police force.

Local governments throughout Miami-Dade, led by the county itself, also rearranged police budgets to deploy officers to schools that previously had been considered safe enough to do without a school-system officer. Gimenez in September won approval of a $10 million budget for a new squad of roving tactical teams whose primary mission is to be on the road for a quick response to a mass shooting.

Leaders from high-crime areas questioned pulling money from the fight against ongoing crime in order to beef up security against a potential threat.

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Miami-Dade Sergeant Jason Waite, left, and officer Zuri Chambers talk with resident Nick Freeman during a stop in Broadway Park on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, during a patrol for Operation Blue and Brown, a joint effort with Miami that has seen significant staffing cuts in recent months. ALEXIA FODERE For The Miami Herald

“I’ve got folks that are being shot, folks that are being killed, in my district,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss said during a July budget hearing about Gimenez’s school-security plans, which were approved. Moss represents a rural area in South Dade. “That $20 million could sure go a long way.”

Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, named after the Parkland high school where a shooter killed 14 students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018, requires at least one armed guard at every public school in the state.

The law allows armed school staff members to satisfy the rule, but South Florida districts opted to use professional safety officers to comply with the new rules. Broward used a mix of certified guards and police for its school-security plan, and Miami-Dade opted for both the school system’s officers and police dispatched by local agencies. The county agreed to send officers to elementary schools outside of city limits.

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Miami-Dade officer Zuri Chambers, foreground, and Sergeant Jason Waite apprehend a woman who had stripped off her clothes during an encounter on a street in the Northside police district on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. ALEXIA FODERE For The Miami Herald

Florida didn’t provide enough state funding to cover police staffing for Miami-Dade schools. The county’s police force dispatched the most of any local agency — about 100 officers, paid out of overtime. Miami-Dade agreed to the $20 million deployment as temporary, allowing the school system time to raise the funds to expand its force. “It was a stop-gap measure to comply with state law,” Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a school board spokeswoman. said in a statement. “We are quickly hiring our own School Resource Officers.”

Miami-Dade voters in November approved an increase to the property taxes that fund schools, and part of that money is slated to hire enough system officers to replace the ones that cities and the county sent to temporarily guard campuses.

Gimenez’s budget office said the temporary school deployments would be paid out of one-time revenue sources, meaning there shouldn’t be a windfall waiting once the school system takes over guard duty. That makes funding beefed-up patrols in Northside more complicated.

The county says it would cost about $4.8 million a year to resume 20-hour patrols with 12-person shifts in two high-crime pockets that were the original targets of Operation Blue and Brown when it launched in April.

Miami-Dade and Miami mostly shared the staffing load for the operation, with the city providing an additional 28 officers every day to patrol the nearly 150 blocks covered by the patrol “boxes” that sit between Northwest 12th Avenue and 27th Avenue, and 41st Street and 71st Street. Those run through the Brownsville and Liberty City neighborhoods, with a mix of territory inside and outside of Miami city limits.

It launched after the gunfire deaths of two teens at the Liberty Square housing complex. The daylight killings rattled a neighborhood already weary of gang-driven violence, shootings and gunfire.

Miami deployed a mobile command center in the neighborhood, and joined Miami-Dade in overlapping shifts that during the day had 25 officers on patrol, plus three with drug dogs and two officers on horseback. The operation got its name from the agencies’ uniforms: blue for the city, brown for the county.

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Miami-Dade officer Zuri Chambers, left, and Sergeant Jason Waite stop in Broadway Park on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, while on patrol for Operation Blue and Brown. ALEXIA FODERE For The Miami Herald

“When we’re fully staffed and are able to get out there and walk the streets, it has an impact,” said Sgt. Jason Waite, who joined a Blue and Brown patrol during a recent Friday morning.

He was one of four county officers on patrol for that daytime shift, about a quarter of the presence the neighborhood saw during the peak of Blue and Brown. The city of Miami has shut down its part of the operation, saying the police surge succeeded in tamping down violent crime in the Liberty Square complex.

“The goal was met,” said Freddie Cruz, head of the Miami Police Department’s public information office.

Miami-Dade still considers Blue and Brown an ongoing operation, but one with reduced staffing that relies on patrol officers assigned to Northside.

Officer Zuri Chambers joined Waite for what turned out to be a quiet Friday morning shift. Before 10 a.m., a man flagged down Chambers as a woman, who later described herself as a crack smoker on psychiatric drugs, stripped off her clothes on Northwest 18th Avenue while screaming at onlookers.

“That’s mild,” Chambers said about 45 minutes later, after he and Waite turned her over to hospital workers at the North Shore Medical Center. “She was actually cooperative.”

Chambers grew up in the Liberty Square complex, became a fan of an “Officer Friendly” who visited his school to meet the students, and set his sights on a career in law enforcement.

After two decades as a county police dispatcher, Chambers joined the patrol ranks three years ago. The 43-year-old’s first and current assignment is the Northside district, where he serves as a mentor to a pair of boys, age 12 and 17, as part of the department’s youth-outreach unit.

He visits their homes, helps arrange tutoring for school, and gets updates through WhatsApp. “They’ll send me messages: Hey, I got a hundred on this test,” said Chambers, a father of a grown daughter. “They’re studying hard.”

Chambers said the high-profile police presence at the peak of Blue and Brown made patrols calmer. He’s seen a drop in reports of gunfire in some of the area’s notorious trouble spots. He also thinks the respite will be temporary.

“I think if we don’t get the right number of officers to Northside, it’s just a matter of time before the hotbeds start to rise again,” he said.

Gimenez’s memo to county commissioners said the county could dip into money seized from convicted criminals to beef up staffing once again along the Blue and Brown routes. But those dollars aren’t a stable source of funding, and “additional resources are required to implement [a] sustained enforcement operation.”

Juan Perez, the county’s police director and a Gimenez appointee, said high-visibility operations like Blue and Brown aren’t permanent solutions to long-term crime problems. Instead, crime tends to migrate elsewhere, then drift back once staff returns to typical levels.

He said funding will be available for increased patrols to deal with another wave of violence, but that he prefers a strategy that lets district commanders shift staffing as needed.

“The moment we leave, it may spark up again,” Perez said. “We have to be flexible enough to address crimes with the personnel we have.”

Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

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