Miami-Dade County

Miami’s police force expansion goes bust

Mariano Cruz speaks to commissioners Tuesday while wearing a T-shirt passed out by Miami’s police union ahead of budget hearings predicting failure for a push to bolster the police force by 100 officers.
Mariano Cruz speaks to commissioners Tuesday while wearing a T-shirt passed out by Miami’s police union ahead of budget hearings predicting failure for a push to bolster the police force by 100 officers. Miami Herald

Miami commissioners have made it clear: They want more cops on the street. Period.

Determined to bolster the city’s police force, they have increased spending on the police department by more than 15 percent over the past two years and added 115 budgeted officer positions. They have talked ad nauseam amid a spike in homicides about creating a safer city by boosting police staffing to levels commensurate with cities like Atlanta and Memphis, where there are more than three or four officers for every 1,000 citizens.

But commissioners can only vote to hire more cops. Actually pinning a badge on a uniform falls to the city’s administration and police brass. And despite heavy recruiting efforts, a high-profile push to bring the city’s police force close to 1,300 cops hasn’t yielded any results.

Staffing numbers provided by Miami police show that heading into June the number of officers on the city’s force was 1,140 — four fewer than the number of budgeted cops when commissioners wanted to begin their hiring spree in late 2013. Administrators say they’ve hired nearly 300 new officers during the past three years, but because of heavy attrition and a lengthy screening process, the force won’t reach 1,261 officers anytime soon — if ever.

“It’s pretty simple to say get it done, but there’s a process here,” said Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, who was appointed after the commission called for more officers.

The situation isn’t surprising, given years of dialogue and suggestions a year ago that elected officials temper their expectations. Llanes believes there has been so much pressure to increase police presence that actual policing has suffered, even though crime is down 4 percent from last year.

“Right now the city is at 1963 crime levels based on our population, but you’d never know that because we’re in a hiring crisis,” he said.

But the city’s inability to add new officers fast enough is beginning to frustrate some commissioners on an issue they’ve publicly promoted and is creating tensions between Miami’s administration and a vocal group of residents. It’s also raising questions about whether the city will be able to merely tread water with police staffing, as hundreds of retirements come down the pike, spurred on by a unilateral recession-era decision by the commission to balance the budget by slashing employees’ salaries and benefits and temporarily freeze new hires.

“I don’t think you’re going to hire your way out of this problem,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who regularly prods for updates on hiring efforts and questions whether the city is doing enough. “We’ve been at this for three years.”

This week, Sarnoff called a special meeting to air projections by his staff warning that, with one in five officers set to retire by December 2018, Miami’s police force might actually be smaller in three years than it is now. Sarnoff believes the city should look at hiring more officers away from other departments, and providing incentives for them to live in the city.

Llanes disputed Sarnoff’s projections. But what is indisputable is that the number of officers in the city hasn’t increased from the amount budgeted through the fall of 2013.

For some recent crime victims, that’s beyond frustrating. South Grove homeowner Fernand Amandi, whose home was burglarized in 2013, tore into Miami’s city manager and police chief Tuesday, saying they’d failed to live up to promises made to taxpayers.

“I can’t risk the safety of my family on the excuses that you’re bringing here today,” Amandi, a principal in the communications and polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International, told Llanes and city manager Daniel Alfonso.

Amandi brought hundreds to City Hall two years ago after a spate of burglaries in the Grove and returned last fall to push for yet more police. The commission responded by budgeting an extra $26 million annually during the next two years on police, including millions to create positions for an additional 115 cops.

Unless things reverse quickly, Amandi told commissioners, “I think it’s time that you call for a vote of no confidence in our city manager.”

That might seem a dramatic overreaction for an administrator Sarnoff says is the best he has ever worked with in nine years, but city managers often have short shelf lives in Miami. Nor is it unprecedented to have concerns about crime topple city leaders. A parallel situation was seen recently in Coral Gables, where following a crime wave, political consultant Freddy Balsera drummed up intense pressure on City Hall that ultimately led to upheaval.

“I’m trying to prevent that from happening, and that’s definitely where I see this thing going,” said Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez. “In that case, you can argue that it cost a police chief his job.”

Expectations might, however, be unrealistic in Miami, where cuts in 2010 pushed droves of police officers into the Deferred Retirement Option Program, which locks in pensions and allows employees to accrue a nest egg while they earn a salary on the condition that they retire in seven years. As a result, nearly 100 officers are scheduled to retire in the month of September 2017 alone.

Llanes says the city is continuously recruiting, sorting through hundreds of résumés, and running potential officers through physical and mental exams, polygraphs and health screenings. If they qualify, recruits go through the academy, and then have to go through field training before they can be out on their own.

Though he recently acknowledged that a problem with a uniform vendor kept a small group of rookie officers on the sidelines for weeks, Llanes said the department has tripled its recruiting staff — union president Lt. Javier Ortiz points out Miami has more recruiters than homicide detectives. But properly vetting and training rookies takes time. Miami’s police chief is also not as bullish about recruiting officers from other departments as city commissioners.

“I’m not about to lower standards or do anything else that will put the police department in a bad light,” Llanes said.

Ortiz has said for years that the city won’t meet its hiring goals unless it improves pay and benefits for its officers. Mayor Tomás Regalado is expected to release his 2016 budget next week and says he plans to focus on improving compensation before talking any more about increasing the police force.

“We have to deal with better salaries for the police department and fire department,” he said. “First take care of them, and then we can start the conversation about new positions.”