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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Knife-wielding youths repeatedly stab newspaper editor Jay Vail and his friend as they take in the salt air one recent spring night on the South Beach sand. Another group of kids club interior designer George Tamsitt across the face with a plank and leave him unconscious in a pool of blood on Espanola Way. One beating takes place on Washington Avenue, right in front of the police station.
Although they cite statistical evidence that Miami Beach's crime rate has declined recently, the police department will soon implement a new "sector patrol" plan, part of a nationwide trend to put cops more closely in touch with the communities they serve. Sector patrolling, used in different forms in Miami and Hialeah, was to debut in Miami Beach in January, but the date has been pushed back to July. Police spokesmen blame the delay on red tape; Beach residents, however, attribute it to resistance from the very people the plan would immediately affect - police officers themselves.
"What it seems like to us is that the rank and file in the police department is opposed to this plan because they can't be cowboys any more," says Ed McNally, director of SoBe Safe, a citizens' watchdog group recently formed to address the issue of crime on South Beach. "If they get a boring sector to patrol, they'll have a boring life, instead of being able to bust the drug dealers all the time."
At SoBe Safe's second meeting last month, both Neisen Kasdin, a city commissioner, and Ambrose Sims, a Beach police officer, told group members that a majority of the force's officers are opposed to the plan, preferring to work with the system as it now stands. "It seems like there is a resistance to change," Kasdin comments. "People don't want to do things differently than they've been done before."
Currently, officers are assigned to one of three zones - Government Cut to 23rd Street, 23rd Street to 63rd Street, and 63rd Street north - patrolling the entire area to which they are assigned. When sector patrolling begins, the city will be divided into ten zones with officers assigned a designated "area of responsibility," which would be the entire sector in some cases, a fraction of that area in others. Proponents of sector patrols say officers will be able to become familiar with their particular areas, develop relationships with residents and business owners, and recognize who belongs and who doesn't. "If it works out the way we're hoping," says Maj. Rocco De Leo, "it will make officers more responsive to the individual needs of the area they are patrolling."
De Leo, who heads the department's patrol division, confirms that there has been some muttering among officers. "There have been concerns that the plan won't work, that there won't be enough backup, that people will be getting called out of their zone all the time, anyway," says De Leo. "And sure, there are some concerns that this would limit their freedom." Officers accustomed to covering a large beat, he explains, find it hard to imagine being restricted to a limited area for eight to ten hours at a time. But the patrols will begin once the administrative details are cleared up. "There are a considerable number of things that have to be switched over to put a plan like this in place," De Leo says. "You can't just restructure the entire system overnight, and perhaps we were unrealistic in setting a January start-up date."
Resistance by the officers is to be expected, says Edward Mandt, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Broward Community College. "When a plan like this is put in place, you narrow the scope of activity of the individual officer," he explains. "In his view, you are reducing the attractiveness of the job. Some of police work is routine and somewhat boring, other aspects of it offer more interesting kinds of exposure and demand quick thinking and decision-making. It keeps you on your toes. What happens with sector patrolling is you reduce some of the opportunities for an individual officer to find himself in those more demanding and more rewarding experiences that got him into police work in the first place."
While De Leo says the officers' objections are being considered and will be addressed as the plan is implemented, the rank and file have been banned from commenting to the press about the plan. Sgt. Linda Veski, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #8, says the police union has not taken a position either way regarding sector patrols.
Worried that the island might be returning to the free-for-all days of the early Eighties, many business owners and residents say police work ought to get a bit more boring, and the sooner the better. Had sector patrols been in place, says SoBe Safe's Ed McNally, some of the recent violence might have been averted, notwithstanding department statistics that show a three percent decrease in violent crimes during the first four months of this year, as compared to 1991.
To that end, SoBe Safe is working with a Hialeah-based unit of the Guardian Angels, networking with gay organizations such as GUARD and the Dade Action PAC to better document hate crimes, and organizing a petition drive demanding that sector patrols be implemented as soon as possible. "The crime we have out here is affecting everyone," McNally argues. "They're not singling out one group. It's the elderly, Hassidic Jews, gays, lesbians, African-Americans, tourists, residents. It doesn't matter who you are when you're just strolling down the street and you get your ass kicked. At that point you're just a victim.