South Miami

South Miami seeks increased state penalties for crimes against cops

South Miami has become the first city in Florida to pass a resolution calling for enhanced penalties for certain crimes committed against law enforcement, firefighters and emergency services personnel.

The city commission unanimously passed the item June 7, requesting the Florida Legislature amends state statutes to include enhanced penalties for felonies and misdemeanors committed against those parties.

“Now they raised the level of the charges that go against a person that if they commit some type of act, some type of hate act or whatever it may be, against a law enforcement officer, they raise the level of the penalty against that person,” South Miami Police Chief Rene Landa said.

“Having the support of the mayor and the commission, everyone as a whole, to support that just shows massive support to the police department by our elected officials in our city,” Landa said. “It gives the officers themselves a little bit more protection from that resolution and apart from that, they are seeing the support the commission gives them and it makes them feel a lot better.”

A total of 124 law enforcement officers were killed last year in the United States, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those 124 lives lost, 52 died in traffic incidents, 42 by gunfire, and 30 died from other causes. Six officers died as a result of “ambush attacks.”

In 1989, the Florida Legislature passed several laws to address hate crimes, including increasing penalties for convictions of crimes where there was evidence of prejudice. Lawmakers enacted the Hate Crimes Reporting Act, requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

South Miami’s resolution calls to reclassify penalties for any felony or misdemeanor that shows prejudice based on actual or perceived employment as an officer, firefighter or emergency services personnel. According to the statute, a second-degree misdemeanor will be reclassified to a first-degree, a first-degree will become a third-degree felony, a third-degree felony will become a second-degree, a second-degree felony will become a first-degree, and a first-degree felony will become a life felony.

“Law enforcement put themselves in harm’s way, potentially, every single day,” City Manager Steven Alexander said. “They are the guys out there trying to protect us from all the bad guys, whether you can see them or can’t see them. They are out there trying to protect us and make sure that issues don’t pop up.”

A balance of public safety is important to Alexander and Landa, who put an officer on desk duty last year for shooting an unarmed Michael Gavins last November at a Coral Gables gas station. Gavins survived the traffic stop shooting and was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to sell and resisting arrest without violence. The felony charges were later dropped. Since then, the commission unanimously approved the use of body-worn cameras for its police department.

“It’s a pretty tough situation, but certainly everybody’s life is valued highly,” Alexander said. “I think the entire community needs to really be mindful of taking care of each other, whoever it is.”

Landa also put South Miami’s mayor, vice mayor, commissioners, and staff through the shoot-don’t-shoot simulation with the Dade County Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and FDLE. The exercise marked the first time in Florida that a union, police department, and its elected officials came together at one time to use the scenario system. The exercise presents its users with simulated scenarios on a large screen, where they are given verbal commands that alternate between passive situations, or can escalate to someone having a weapon. The users, or officers, then use verbal commands and make decisions, such as drawing and firing or not firing a weapon.

“I wanted elected officials to actually see our training and actually see what a split-second decision is and what decisions an officer has to make in some of those situations,” Landa said. “It put everybody in the situation to realize how fast an officer has to make a decision. Sometimes it’s a split second. One of those seconds could cause a guys life or cause the officer to lose his life.”

Landa cited numerous instances of brutality against police across the country, including cop murders in New York and Texas.

“The intensity of what has been going on in the country between law enforcement and their communities, and look at the violence we are seeing in Orlando,” Landa said, “sometimes the target of that, by a terrorist group, or bad people in general, is against cops.”

Last month, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation for hate-crime protections to cover law enforcement and first responders.

“We are all working together,” Landa said. “Law enforcement cannot do the job that we do without having our community involved. It just doesn’t work, that’s why everybody has to be together. That’s what we’ve created in South Miami. You have elected officials, police officers, the clergy, concerned citizens in the community, and our merchants, all come together and work together. It’s a balancing act of us being able to communicate, hopefully with other people that are involved with us.”