By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Carmen Caldwell didn't flinch when acting Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez fired her in January as the city police department's coordinator for community relations and Citizens Crime Watch. "Fine," she said. "I'll do the job for free." But donating up to twelve hours of her time each day apparently made his interim honor uncomfortable. Now he says Caldwell is not even allowed to volunteer.
"Isn't that absurd?" asks the 43-year-old Caldwell, a twenty-year resident of Hialeah and once a close friend of Martinez. "It smells to me like this is one more thing in his fight with the police chief. I guess he just wants me out of the way."
In a well-publicized feud with Police Chief Rolando Bolanos, the mayor earlier this year reorganized the force, transferring or demoting supporters of the chief and promoting his own backers. Martinez has tried to oust the chief, but lacks the necessary city council votes. Now even innocuous programs like Crime Watch have become targets in the infamous political wars of Dade's second-largest city.
On July 31 the mayor sent a memo to the police chief revoking the permission given Caldwell in January to volunteer her services. "She was getting too deeply involved in police matters," says Martinez, "and running around like she was in charge of the police department. I guess it's partly fair to say politics were involved in my decision to let her go, but I'm a politician and I have to protect my career. She wasn't supposed to be a politician, but she was using the position to prepare her political career."
"Totally ridiculous," says Caldwell. "I have never done anything to hurt Julio Martinez. Everybody knows I was one of his closest allies. I worked in all his campaigns, I supported him 100 percent until this. But I guess he'd rather have me as an enemy."
Caldwell first became involved with Hialeah police in the early Eighties, while working with her husband at the couple's music school and recording studio. She acted as a liaison between the police department and business owners, many of whom did not speak English and also feared retribution from criminals should they call the cops. In 1986 she was appointed Citizens Crime Watch co-chairwoman for Hialeah, a volunteer position. (The Citizens Crime Watch program has organized more than 1000 neighborhood groups throughout Dade.)
A year later Caldwell resigned to become a legislative aide, then returned to work with her husband, but remained active as a police-citizen liaison. In December 1989, Caldwell was appointed by Crime Watch as the district chairwoman for Hialeah, also a volunteer position, and began working at the city police department, organizing groups in various neighborhoods, conducting informational presentations, analyzing crime statistics from police computers.
Although her primary responsibility as a volunteer was coordinating the Crime Watch program, she also began to handle community relations duties for the police department. In April 1990, then-Councilman Julio Martinez took over in the wake of Mayor Raul Martinez's indictment on federal corruption charges. Not long after becoming acting mayor, Martinez put Caldwell on the city payroll in a new position - Crime Watch/community-relations coordinator. Pay: $28,000 per year in salary and benefits.
Everything ran smoothly until this past October, Caldwell says, when Dulce Cuetara, the mayor's chief of staff, began to hassle her about the unmarked police cruiser and radio she was using. "I talked to the mayor and he said, `Don't worry about it. Until I call you into my office to say you did something wrong, everything is okay,'" recalls Caldwell. But then on January 14, with no warning, Martinez fired Caldwell, telling the city council he would prefer the program be run by volunteers as it is in other parts of the county. Says Caldwell: "He never talked to me or the chief. It just came out of the blue."
The firing caused an uproar among city council members, police officers, and members of neighborhood Crime Watch groups who supported Caldwell. (She has been honored as the Metro-Dade Police and Citizens Crime Watch of Dade County chairperson of the year for 1990-91.) Martinez subsequently told council members it was the police chief who insisted Caldwell be paid a salary and who later granted her use of a police car and radio without the mayor's approval. The chief countered that the mayor okayed the paid position and allowed Caldwell's use of the car and radio, although he argued that as head of the police department he didn't need the mayor's approval. The week after he fired her, Martinez relented - slightly. He agreed to allow Caldwell to resume her duties without pay.
Caldwell accepted the offer and continued working until last month, when Martinez decided she couldn't even volunteer. Martinez says he "fired" Caldwell because she was answering phones at the police department, giving orders to officers, and delving into city politics. "After I fired her in January and let her come back, she was only supposed to handle the Crime Watch responsibilities," says the mayor. "The community-relations work for the police department was supposed to end there, but that's not what happened. When the mayor calls the police chief's office and Carmen Caldwell answers, when she's spending ten hours a day in the chief's office instead of being out on the road, that is not handling Crime Watch. She was trying to make people believe she was a police official and taking other liberties for political reasons, all with the chief's blessing, and I had to put a stop to it."
Police Chief Rolando Bolanos sees it differently. "That's this month's reason," the chief says, "and last month it was something else. All I know is he says she had too much power in the police department. But Carmen never gave orders here. She would take complaints from citizens and pass them on in the way of memos. It wasn't costing us a penny to have her here and we were getting about 50 hours a week from her in return, so the city was making out like a bandit."
Martinez also moved the community relations/Crime Watch program to city hall, where it now will be run by police Detective Mike de Jesus. That concerns Crime Watch officials. "The whole idea, especially in an area like Hialeah, is that the program be run by one of the citizens, not a police officer," says Ellen Johnson, president and cofounder of Citizens Crime Watch of Dade County, "because there is this feeling that if you work with the police, you might be seen as a snitch. Many residents of that area come from Cuba, where there is this system of neighbors spying on each other, so it is very difficult to get people involved. The way to avoid that is to have one of their own to speak for them, someone like Carmen that they can trust. We were very happy with the job Carmen was doing, but it seems like the mayor felt she was exerting too much power. There is no doubt that the situation was politically motivated."
Caldwell first planned to continue coordinating the Crime Watch program out of her home, but has since taken a leave of absence and filed to run for the city council in the November elections. She hopes to exert what she says is real power by unseating one of the mayor's three council supporters. "I've always said, `You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution,'" Caldwell proclaims. "Well, I've decided that to become part of the solution, I have to become part of the process.