South Miami

South Miami police seek to bond, and break barriers, with local children

South Miami Police and Community Resource Officer Melvris Lopez kisses Laniyah Leon, 12, on July 14 as the police department kicks off its second annual C.A.S.T. (Cops and Students Talking) program.
South Miami Police and Community Resource Officer Melvris Lopez kisses Laniyah Leon, 12, on July 14 as the police department kicks off its second annual C.A.S.T. (Cops and Students Talking) program.

A sign reading “You Can Make a Difference” fronts the South Miami Police Department doors.

Department members have made an effort to forge friendships with members of the community they swore to “protect and serve.” On July 14, that effort included speaking to 30 children, ages 6 to 13, at the Gibson-Bethel Community Center.

Amid an aroma of doughnuts and sea of eager eyes locked onto glittered gold badges, a dozen offers proclaimed a unique message from law enforcement in today’s time: “We want to be your friends.”

The cops were eager to hear what impressions the children had of recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers. (This was several days before three more officers were slain in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)

“They are aware of what’s going on,” South Miami Police Chief Rene Landa said. “Some of the kids only see the negative. I want to open it up and let them see the positive and the relationships that we can have.”

The summer-school children are members of the Cops and Students Talking (CAST) program. For a second summer, officers meet at the center for six weeks from 10:30 a.m. to noon every Thursday.

Police showcase different topics, including stranger danger, bullying, traffic, bicycle safety, crime scene investigation, SWAT, and even bring in its K-9 unit. The program has already reached about 100 children. After the summer, officers visit local schools to continue the connection with familiar faces.

“I learned about what police officers do,” 12-year-old Antonio Johnson said. “Their job is not only to arrest people and give them tickets.”

Some of the children, including Lalnice Harris, held hands high when asked: “Who wants to be a police officer?”

“I think it’s good,” Lalnice said. “Because we can tell them stuff that usually we aren’t going to tell them. I want to learn how to be a police officer. I want to protect and serve.”

Police Capt. Larry Corbin promoted the message, “We are all human beings,” before he gave the children South Miami Police Department bags reading, “Your Friends for Life.”

“A lot of times the kids see us in a bad light,” he said. “Whether we’re arresting somebody or giving tickets, they think we are only here to impose justice on people. We are human beings. We are just like everybody else.

“I want them to feel that, this is a job with really good people and nice people. I want them to be able to approach us when they are on the street. Rather than, ‘Oh my God, it’s a policeman.”

Officer Marcus Kinlaw, executive director of the Police Athletic League, knew several children in the room from his track team. Through donations and fundraisers, he uses the program to intertwine the youth and police.

“We are trying to bridge the gap through sports,” Kinlaw said. “Because a lot of these kids are special in this community. They love sports. They love playing around. This is one of the most active communities I’ve been around. So we are bridging the gap.”

“I sometimes give my kids assignments to go out and find a police officer. Go out and get his name and bring it back to me to make sure I know they are interacting with police officers.”

Since Landa became chief in 2014, he has implemented several initiatives to make officers familiar fixtures in the city.

Last fall, he enforced a full-time foot patrol officer beat in the business district. The officer has collected phone numbers from all of the businesses and gives his number to patrons and merchants. He is tasked with cultivating those relationships to deter crime. Landa’s staff has been trained in diversity and sensitivity awareness and gone through ‘shoot don’t shoot’ scenarios. South Miami’s major crimes are poised to dip drastically for a third consecutive year.

This year’s crime rate is on pace as the lowest since 1991. One of the major reasons for the decline is a ‘zone integrity’ initiative, which uses six police officers to cover six separate city zones. The officers alternate the zones between morning, afternoon, and night shifts. They stay in specific zones for an entire day, quickly becoming well known in those areas.

“There are cops that make errors, there are cops that do things that are wrong sometimes,” Landa said. “Then there are really good ones that are making a difference. That’s the majority of them. But we have to understand on both sides, there are people who do things that are wrong and sometimes there are cops that do things that are wrong.”

“From [this] relationship we can break that bond [where] people think that they can’t talk to cops and that we are so authoritative and all that,” Landa said. “I want to break that down. So as they start growing up, they remember us, they say, ‘I know you.’ I went to a middle school the other day and a kid said, ‘I remember you, you’re Chief Rene.’ It breaks the barrier and that tension.”