Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Voters abolished elected sheriff’s office for good reason

Rep. Frank Artiles
Rep. Frank Artiles

It was Tal Buchanan who finally convinced Dade County voters to rid themselves of the elected office of sheriff.

Sheriff Buchanan oversaw a law enforcement agency critics called a virtual criminal empire, in league with mob bosses, on the take from gambling and prostitution rings.

And more. In 1966, the Dade County Grand Jury described a burglary racket overseen by the sheriff’s office that directed criminals to residences where the booty would be lucrative and where cops, guaranteed, would be elsewhere.

The burglars gave up a share of their loot to their cop bosses. And Buchanan’s boys also oversaw the fencing operations.

Thieves suspected of crossing the cops, the report said, were “set up” and ambushed by waiting officers.

That summer, Sheriff T.A. Buchanan was indicted. But he escaped conviction. An acquittal had been nearly predicted in that same grand jury report, which cited witnesses who refused to testify because they were “terrified for their own safety and the safety of their families.”

Buchanan got off, but voters were so appalled by startling revelations of his corrupt ways in the Miami Herald that in 1966, they voted to abolish the elected office forever.

Forever only goes so far in Florida. As the Florida Bulldog reported last week, Miami’s own Rep. Frank Artiles is pushing a bill through the state Legislature to bring back the likes of Tal Buchanan.

Artiles’ bill would force both Miami-Dade and Volusia counties to jettison their systems of hiring professionals to head county police departments and reinstate the old elected sheriff system. (The measure, which has a companion bill in the state Senate, also would require that a number of counties revert to electing tax collectors, property appraisers and elections supervisors.)

This ought to go over big in Tallahassee, where term limits loom over legislators’ careers. Think of this as a jobs bill for politicians who need more elected office options. Otherwise, they’ll be forced to find real work.

But supporting a measure to replace Miami-Dade’s police director with a political hack requires a mighty dollop of willful amnesia. There was a reason voters rid themselves of elected sheriffs a half century ago. It wasn’t as if Tal Buchanan’s unsavory stint in office had been an anomaly.

South Florida sheriffs had been mobbed up for years, but in 1950, our corrupt ways became the stuff of national fascination. Sen. Estes Kefauver brought his special committee to Miami that hot July, and with television cameras broadcasting live to 30 million viewers, he grilled mobsters and deputies and cops and Dade County Sheriff “Smiling Jimmy” Sullivan. They delivered unabashed testimony, naive to the power of TV.

Historian Paul George described the scene as like something out of Hollywood as Smiling Jimmy tried to explain his giant bank account against his piddling salary. Or why his deputies never quite noticed all those mobsters in a mob-ridden town.

Smiling Jimmy and Tal Buchanan would be so proud to know that after all their shenanigans, we’re set on bringing back the bad ol’ days.