Coral Gables

Crime in Coral Gables: There’s more than you think

A Coral Gables police car sits in front of the Convocation Center at the University of Miami.
A Coral Gables police car sits in front of the Convocation Center at the University of Miami. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Anne Leidel is a statistic. During the afternoon hours of Sept. 8, thieves broke into her north Coral Gables home, taking off with bracelets, rings and a diamond wristwatch given to her by her late husband.

It does make it sad, especially because I’m 92,” said the silver-haired Leidel, who was playing golf at the time of the burglary. “I can never replace those.“

Leidel’s home was one of five Coral Gables homes broken into over a two-day period in early September, following a surge in burglaries in August, when the city had 29 residential burglaries, and one home invasion (robbery with force or threat of force). That’s six more burglaries than in August 2013; there were no home invasions in August 2013.

The rising tide of burglaries led to the resignation of Coral Gables Police Chief Dennis Weiner last month, the naming of an acting police chief and interim police chief on the same day, and a nine-hour city commission meeting in which about 200 residents decried the city’s response to the situation, including how the police department calculates its crime statistics.

“It’s not the value of losing your possessions, it’s the emotional aspect of it,” said Freddy Balsera, a Coral Gables PR executive and lobbyist whose home was broken into last month. “You don’t feel safe in your home. We decided to live in Coral Gables because it’s safe. But the minute you start feeling insecure in your home, that’s where it all changes.”

The city has been telling residents that burglaries have been going down. In the nine-hour commission meeting on Sept. 11, the police department provided statistics showing 200 residential burglaries in the first eight months of 2014; it didn’t provide comparable numbers for 2013. Instead, it said the total number of burglaries in 2013 was 391.

Crime experts say that’s not the whole picture. They say all property crimes need to be considered, not just burglaries. That means items taken from the property (cars, bikes, boats, etc.), home invasion robberies and larcenies (Burglaries involve unlawful entry into a structure with the intent to commit a crime; robberies involve force or threat of force when stealing from a person; larcenies are thefts.)

An in-depth look at the city’s crime statistics reveals, for example, 1,103 incidents related to thefts from residents’ properties from Aug. 1, 2013, to July 31, 2014. These included burglaries, as well as property stolen from outside the home, thefts from cars and thefts of auto parts.

“Police saw that the citizens referred to almost any crime as a burglary, so police just stayed on that thread and said: ‘OK, you want to talk about burglaries, we’ll give you burglaries,’“ said Chuck Drago, a law enforcement consultant in Central Florida who had been a former assistant police chief in Fort Lauderdale.

“People don’t care about what you call it. People only care about them being stolen from,” he said. “They’ve got that whole picture but are only giving you a slice of it. At that point what you’re doing is downplaying the public’s concerns.”

Interim police chief Ed Hudak, a 26-year Gables police department veteran named interim chief last month, said he would not comment on crime statistics compiled by the Weiner administration. Weiner, who resigned effective Sept. 11, did not return telephone calls for this story.

Hudak acknowledges that residents are upset. He says he is putting more marked patrols on the streets, assigning officers to a specific beat, and establishing better communication between residents and the department. He said he also plans to make crime reports readily accessible online within a month.

“Moving forward, we will be centralizing our crime reports, having one person put it all together in our records department,” Hudak said.

High-profile incidents

Coral Gables, with its leafy boulevards, historic homes, and waterfront gated communities, is generally perceived to be a fairly safe community, residents say. In 2013, its crime rate per 100,000 residents was 4,736, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Uniform Crime Report. Among Miami-Dade cities its size — 48,524 residents in 2013 — its crime rate is comparable. Doral (49,253 residents) had a crime rate of 4,842 per 100,000 residents in 2013. Cutler Bay (42,035 residents) had a crime rate of 4,351. North Miami Beach (42,442 residents), 4,710. These statistics factor in all crimes: Murder, rape, robbery, burglaries, car thefts, larcenies, etc.

Neighboring municipalities that have similar demographics — Pinecrest and Palmetto Bay — have much lower crime rates. In 2013, Pinecrest had a crime rate of 3,222 per 1,000 residents and Palmetto Bay had a crime rate of 3,288, according to the FDLE. But they are much smaller — Pinecrest had a population of 18,496 in 2013; Palmetto Bay, 23,784.

Crime has become a heated issue over the past year after a series of high-profile incidents, some of which involved violence, or the threat of it. This has caught the attention of residents, who have orchestrated email campaigns to city and police leaders, organized crime watch groups, and even run robo-calls on the issue of crime in Coral Gables.

The first of several highly publicized cases happened in August 2013, when an early morning runner was held up at gunpoint as he ran along North Greenway Drive, one of two boulevards that hug the Granada Golf Course.

An armed man, who was soon joined by two other men, forced the jogger to the ground and stole his iPod Shuffle, gold wedding ring valued at $500 and a $150 exercise watch, according to the police report. A fourth man drove the three from the scene after they ordered the jogger to walk away and to not look back or he would be shot, the report said. A month later, Miami Beach police arrested eight men, including the four who were allegedly involved in the Gables robbery.

Then came a rare robbery by home invasion in August 2014, where a man took more than $147,000 in cash and jewelry. According to the police report, a woman was watering plants outside of her Navarre Avenue home when she noticed a man on a bicycle circling the area. The man rode his bike into her driveway and forced her into her home. The man took $100 from her wallet and $2,000 from a drawer. He then took her wedding ring, valued at $45,000, and $100,000 in jewelry. The case is still open.

Then came the burglaries at the homes of two Univision executives.

In May, thieves broke into the home of Carlos Bardasano Jr., vice president of programming and original production. More than $600,000 in watches were stolen, police said.

In early September, thieves burglarized the home of Balsera and his wife, Gloria Ordaz, an anchor on Channel 23. No one was home during the burglary, which occurred in the afternoon on a weekday. About $60,000 in property was stolen, according to the police report.

After the burglary, Balsera orchestrated a robo-call campaign, similar to those conducted during a political campaign: “My name is Freddy Balsera and I am one of the thousands of Gables residents that is a burglary victim,” he said in the recording. “I am taking a stand and I need your help so that together we can stop this crime epidemic.”

Balsera urged residents to attend the Sept. 11 meeting the City Commission called to discuss crime in Coral Gables. The day before, police chief Weiner resigned, effective 8 a.m. Sept. 11. The interim city manager, Carmen Olazabal, named Maj. Theresa Molina as acting police chief that morning, but her stint lasted for only a few hours. Hudak was named interim chief by the evening.

Meanwhile, residents ripped to pieces packets of printed crime statistics provided by the police department at the meeting. The statistics showed burglaries going down in 2014. Commissioner Vince Lago called the statistics “an insult to my intelligence.”

The discrepancy was over how the police department classified the crimes.

Bardasano’s father, Carlos Bardasano Sr., put in a public records request asking the police department to document a year’s worth of residential property crimes, from Aug. 1, 2013, to July 31, 2014. The police department’s analysis, conducted by the Weiner administration, came up with 1,103 crimes in four categories.

The four categories were: 270 residential burglaries; 108 thefts from curtilage of residences; 643 thefts from automobiles; 82 thefts of auto parts. Curtilage of residence is a theft that occurs in front yards, backyards, driveways, porches and patios — anywhere on the property that is not part of the actual home.

Jeffrey Weiner, a Miami criminal defense attorney, said by not including these thefts when citing its burglary statistics, the city was not giving the whole picture.

“Crimes that take place on a curtilage, like breaking into a car, stealing a boat, breaking into a separate area of a yard, maybe stealing barbeque equipment or furniture from the porch, are still burglaries,” he said. “These are crimes that affect residents in a big way. It shows that criminals were on their residential properties committing a crime. By not including these crimes in an analysis that was meant to inform residents about top insecurities in their community is not giving a truthful and complete picture.”

Eli B. Silverman, a criminologist and professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said “a lot of things affect crime” and that “police are not totally responsible.”

Hudak, in an interview, said he would not comment on Weiner’s statistics. However, he acknowledged that residential burglaries were up in August: 29 in August 2014 vs. 23 in August 2013. And there was the home invasion robbery in August.

Hudak’s report shows that for the first eight months of 2014, residential burglaries numbered 165, down from 214 during the same period in 2013. His report, though, details many other thefts in August: Robbery home invasion (1); thefts from motor vehicles (65); thefts of bikes (10); thefts of auto parts (5), among other thefts.

Hudak recognizes that residents are upset.

“Looking at the numbers, it’s not a victory, and it’s not a defeat. Those numbers are people that have been victimized,” Hudak said.

On Sept. 18, Hudak submitted the department’s action plan to city officials. In detail, he outlined what the department plans to do:

▪ Create a monthly update for citizens online in the coming months;

▪ Coordinate with the city’s public works department and FPL to address additional street lighting;

▪ Review street closures to address residents’ requests to close streets;

▪ Provide the city with a report summarizing staffing patterns, divisional responsibilities, human resource and recruitment issues and implementation of new technologies.

Hudak said he and his officers have been working 14-hour days. He added that in the coming weeks the department will launch a Twitter and Facebook account to keep residents informed.

“There’s just not enough hours in the day, but we’ll keep going,” Hudak said.

In recent weeks, the police department has sent out emails to the media and residents, letting them know when an arrest has been made, including one on Sept. 22 of a woman who tried to break into a home and another on Sept. 23 when a man tried to steal equipment from a north Gables trailer.

Silvia Unzueta, a resident of more than 30 years, said she has noticed the changes.

“Let me tell you, the kind of spirit I see in the police force today is incredible,” she said. “They are everywhere, considerably more visible and proactive.’’

Hudak says that’s his goal and it begins with a more transparent department.

“There have been and will be spikes in crime in our city; this is a reality,’’ Hudak said. “But it is critical that our citizens know that they are protected and that their police department is actively involved in proactive multi-agency approaches that both prevent crime and solve crime.”

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