Miami-Dade County

How vulnerable to mass violence is South Florida? Leaders worry, plan, worry some more.

Mass shootings. They’ve happened at a food festival. A yoga studio. A packed nightclub. A Walmart on a crowded back-to-school shopping day.

Civic leaders grapple with the unpredictability of mass violence more and more with new horror. This weekend’s attacks in El Paso and Dayton are grave reminders of how quickly acts of violence transpire. Police and average residents alike find themselves evaluating the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in public spaces, schools and even places of worship.

Miami is an open, fluid community where thousands of visitors come and go through large, vulnerable spaces like beaches, airports and entertainment districts. In February, the Super Bowl comes to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, posing another a huge security risk to the county. Throughout the years, each act of mass violence has left its mark in the form of added new layers of security, training, technology and even physical barriers.

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Miami Beach, an engine for the region’s tourism economy with lots of daily foot traffic from residents and visitors, has what law enforcement calls “soft targets” — relatively unprotected open spaces where people could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Among those places discussed in recent years: Lincoln Road. In August 2017, city administrators placed concrete barriers at each end of the outdoor pedestrian mall, at Washington Avenue and Alton Road, following a spate of vehicle-into-crowd attacks in Barcelona, Spain, and in Charlottesville, Virginia. Permanent bollards were included in the designs for a planned reconstruction of the mall.

Mayor Dan Gelber says the most unsettling aspect of the recent shootings is the randomness of the attacks.

“It feels like it can happen anywhere,” said the mayor, who spent a decade in the Florida Legislature and a few years heading the U.S. Senate’s Investigations Committee.

In a letter to Beach residents Monday morning, Gelber highlighted precautions like permanent bollards that the city has taken in the past and outlined what the city has done to further beef up security efforts.

“I don’t want people to panic, and you shouldn’t,” he wrote in the letter. “But it’s difficult to not think about our own community and our own loved ones when we see people just like us victimized by such random and senseless hate and violence.”

Gelber said he asked the committee overseeing a $29 million portion of a general obligation bond to prioritize security-related projects like enhanced lighting and license plate readers so the city can “see these benefits immediately,” he wrote. The city commission will also convene in a special meeting to discuss security initiatives.

Beach police have a special responsibility to protect not only the residents but the 15 million tourists who visit each year and vulnerable groups like a highly concentrated Orthodox Jewish community.

While the city plans to continue funneling attention and resources toward security, Gelber said the burden should fall on government, not people.

It’s “a real balancing act,” he said. “You want situational awareness. But you don’t want paralyzing fear ... we live in an open, free society and we’re not changing that.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he was struck by how the shooter in Dayton was able to inflict so much harm in under a minute — the police response was immediate but still not fast enough. Suarez said he’s reflected on how a city can guard against attacks that might be impossible to anticipate.

“Anything can happen anywhere at any time,” he said.

The mayor said he hopes to discuss the shooting and the response with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, one of his colleagues in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, when the time is appropriate.

Police initiatives

Suarez pointed to the example of events in Bayfront Park, such as New Year’s Eve and Ultra, as policing efforts that were transformed in the wake of mass shootings. In addition to positioning snipers in high-rises, police numbered the towers overlooking Bayfront Park so there would be no confusion among officers over radio communication. Following the vehicular attacks in 2017, the city also took extra precautions during Art Basel by closing Wynwood’s main drag to cars to prevent the threat of vehicular attacks.

Miami police have used “intelligence-led policing” to investigate threats of gang violence in social media and other forums, but he said he will be speaking with Police Chief Jorge Colina about whether the department needs more resources.

“We’re living in a world where the threats come fast and are very unpredictable,” Suarez said.

In September, Miami-Dade plans to roll out a dramatic increase in security for the county’s 29-floor government center in downtown Miami. While anyone can take an elevator up to offices at Miami-Dade’s Stephen P. Clark Government Center, that will end in the coming weeks. Last week, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced construction of new security check-in stations that will screen visitors, force them to move through metal detectors and acquire a badge before heading upstairs.

Gimenez’s announcement came two months after a gunman, a city employee, killed 12 at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va. Juan Perez, Miami-Dade’s police director, said the security upgrades weren’t spurred by the Virginia Beach shooting. “The county has been looking at this for a while, based on a number of attacks,” he said.

After the Parkland massacre in early 2018, Gimenez announced a new 83-person arm of the Police Department dedicated to responding to mass shooting incidents. Gimenez’s 2019 budget had $15 million to launch the operation, which deployed the response teams throughout the county. Gimenez’s proposed 2020 budget includes funding for the teams, but the county expected to bring down costs by filling vacant police slots and reducing overtime expenses.

Heightened security after mass shootings goes beyond just local towns and cities.

A convention this week

The National Association of Black Journalists, which is hosting its annual convention in Aventura this week, sent an email Sunday night to attendees with updated security information.

“We met with local police departments and hotel security staff two days ago regarding our convention security needs including concerns fueled by the racial climate and recent mass shootings,” Executive Director Drew Berry wrote. “The security team is putting together substantial plans that include both visible and covert security details.”

Berry warned that those who attempt to access events and sessions without a badge will be escorted off the property.

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Miami Dade College, home to eight campuses and the largest undergraduate population in the country, has its own robust active shooter response program in the form of monthly training, exercises with local law enforcement and a mass notification system.

Even still, the college is working to improve its emergency plan by installing lockable doors for every classroom across the college.

“Our college community is deeply affected by the senseless attacks that took place in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio,” said Yakir Fernandez, the college’s director of emergency preparedness.

Following the February 2018 massacre of 17 high school students and staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Miami-Dade governments worked with the school district to place police officers in all primary and secondary public schools. Officials were already discussing the measure when then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill steering funding to school security statewide in March 2018. The placement of police at each school and the specialized training required is a new normal in Miami-Dade, the country’s fifth-largest school district.

The county superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, wrote on Twitter Sunday that if no action comes of the attacks in El Paso and Dayton, he fears the death toll from mass shootings will only continue to rise.

“I hope desensitization to these heinous crimes does not result in legislative inaction. #SomethingMustBeDoneNOW,” he wrote.

A previous version of this story misstated the amount of money Miami Beach has allocated toward security.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.