After a storied history of bad sheriffs, Miami-Dade voters will elect them again

The Miami-Dade Police Department is a county agency, but it is set to be spun off into its own government entity under a new state constitutional amendment requiring the election of sheriffs.  Miami-Dade is the only Florida county without a sheriff.
The Miami-Dade Police Department is a county agency, but it is set to be spun off into its own government entity under a new state constitutional amendment requiring the election of sheriffs. Miami-Dade is the only Florida county without a sheriff. Miami Herald staff

Miami-Dade had better hope its future of elected sheriffs winds up better than its past.

Florida’s Amendment 10 passed statewide Tuesday, a constitutional change that requires Miami-Dade to join the rest of Florida’s counties in electing a sheriff. The amendment also requires election of other appointed offices in Miami-Dade and elsewhere, including elections supervisor and tax collector. Broward already elects its elections supervisor, too, but voters there will begin picking the county’s tax collector under Amendment 10.

Local leaders opposed the amendment, and Miami-Dade unsuccessfully sued to try and block the ballot item. But Miami-Dade voters backed it by a wide margin in this week’s election, 58 percent to 42 percent. Statewide, the results were a bit wider, with 63 percent in favor and 37 percent against.

The results of the vote will be slow moving, since elections for sheriff, tax collector and election supervisor aren’t required until 2024.

But with Miami-Dade’s law enforcement operations being run by a new elected official instead of someone appointed by the mayor, the county must figure out how to spin off two of its largest agencies from its 27,600-person payroll. The new sheriff would run not just the 4,400-person police department, but the 3,000-employee jail system, too.

“Our department’s uniforms and colors may change,” Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez, an appointee of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said in an email sent to his department’s staff on Wednesday. “But our commitment, professionalism, integrity and values remain the same.”

Florida’s most populous county hasn’t had an elected sheriff since the 1960s, when a pair of corruption scandals led voters to pass a referendum to abolish it.

Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Crime Investigation Committee Hearing in 1950 questions Dade County Sheriff Jimmy Sullivan, who passes the committee a picture. AP archives

County Commissioner Joe Martinez and Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, both former police officers, are also considered potential candidates, as is former state lawmaker Frank Artiles.

But the wait til the middle of the next decade may be too long for current political leaders. Steadman Stahl, president of the county police union, said he expects the sheriff election to be a popular one.

“I think you’re going to have as many people running for sheriff as you will for the next mayor’s race,” Stahl said, referring to the open race for mayor in 2020, when Gimenez must leave under the county’s term-limit rules.

The union Stahl heads, the Police Benevolent Association, backed Amendment 10, arguing a county is better served by someone elected solely to focus on law enforcement. “When your issue is transit,” Stahl said, citing Miami-Dade’s ongoing transportation debate, “something has to fall off to the side.”

Former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim called a statewide vote to eliminate the appointed post of Miami-Dade’s police director, “outrageous” and “a tyranny of the majority.”

He said Tuesday’s vote promises to inject political ambitions into the question of who will run what’s currently a professional police organization. Stierheim recalled how he was able to fire a county police chief in the late 1970s who refused to remake the department to reflect the demographics of the county.

“Now, you get a politician who wants a place to park, so he runs for sheriff. Who thinks a police department needs to be politicized?” he said. “It’s really disappointing. Look what happened to Ken Jenne.”

Jenne, the former elected sheriff of Broward County, was forced to resign from office in 2007 after federal investigators determined he was committing crimes in his personal business dealings.

He eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud, accepting a penalty of one year and one day in prison in a case that could have been much worse for him had a grand jury had the chance to indict him on money laundering charges.

Even with an elected sheriff, the current system of funding law enforcement is likely to remain the same. In Broward, the County Commission approves the budget for the sheriff’s office. Miami-Dade’s mayor has veto power over budget votes.

In his email to the police staff, Perez said he was working with Gimenez’s office “to create a strategic plan” needed for a smooth transition. He also wrote that the county expects the first sheriff election in 2024, with the winning candidate sworn in the following January.

“As it stands now, our department will not undergo immediate changes,” Perez wrote. “The transition to the Office of Sheriff will not come without challenges. However, we are a great organization and have always been adaptable when faced with challenges.”