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In the pantheon of great American empire-builders Nelson Long's name may not immediately spring to mind. Rockefeller had oil. Vanderbilt was master of the railroads. J.P. Morgan ruled steel and financing. The Hearst name became synonymous with the publishing industry. Long, in his own obscure field, was equally unsurpassed. His business was peddling off-duty cops.
Beginning in the 1980s, when he was an officer with the Miami Beach Police Department, Long was known in the film and television industry as the guy who could get all the off-duty police you needed to assure your production would go smoothly on the Beach. Want to block traffic on Washington Avenue? Long's your man. Need a police escort to drive a couple of Winnebagos onto the sand? Long can help you. Shooting a scene with a famous movie star and need crowd control? See Long. And even though he retired from the department in October 1992 following a heart attack, he continued providing his services.
"Nelson was great," coos Beverly Visitacion, a veteran location manager, echoing a common sentiment heard throughout the local production industry. "He was a location manager's dream. You could always count on him to do whatever he said he was going to do, which meant you could get a good night's sleep."
But early this year police officials began to grow suspicious that Long had been operating in violation of departmental administrative rules. And in March the former cop suddenly backed out of the business, leaving behind unanswered questions about his activities. According to sources in the State Attorney's Office and the Miami Beach Police Department, investigators from the SAO and the police department's internal affairs department are probing Long's enterprise and his relationship with the City of Miami Beach.
Off-duty police work is an opportunity available to officers at most police departments in South Florida, and can be a lucrative sideline. (In Miami Beach, the official off-duty rate is twenty dollars per hour per officer.) Sgt. Gary Bergert, supervisor of the Off-Duty Employment Office, estimates that the department receives several hundred requests per month for off-duty officers to stand at the doorways of clubs, grocery stores, banks -- any place that needs a law enforcement boost. Production-related work, Bergert says, accounts for no more than twenty percent of total off-duty business.
City regulations require that all requests for off-duty officers be channeled through the police department's Off-Duty Employment Office. The department then selects officers to work the job -- the assignments are doled out on a rotational basis for fairness. (In the case of long-term jobs, Bergert appoints a coordinator who acts as liaison between the business, the officers, and the Off-Duty Employment Office.) The client, whether it be Publix or Big Time Productions, must pay the department an administrative surcharge (eight dollars per man per shift for a permanent job and fifteen for a one-time event) and pay the off-duty officers directly.
At least that's the way the system should work. But in reality the off-duty program was for many years considerably less efficient. According to Capt. Casey Conwell, commander of the department's Support Services Division, which includes the Off-Duty Employment Office, a supervisor (Sergeant Bergert) was only recently assigned to oversee the office full-time. In addition the office became computerized just a short time ago. "All the coordinators were supposed to send in their records to the off-duty office, but because there was no full-time supervisor checking on these jobs, I cannot vouch that they were all in compliance," Conwell says. As a result, the captain adds, it's possible that some jobs weren't reported and administrative fees weren't paid. "One of the problems you have is who's in charge and who's watching who."
During the 1980s Nelson Long emerged as the main off-duty police coordinator for the production industry. And after retiring from the police force he apparently expanded his enterprise beyond the mere issue of law-enforcement. Besides arranging for cops, production sources say, Long would subcontract traffic barricades from a private firm, and work with the city's parking department to ensure that the right meters were bagged and parking spaces allotted for production vehicles and equipment. "He was able to clear streets in Miami Beach, which is a miracle," location manager Visitacion says. "He had a good rapport with store owners, so he could smooth things over. He always knew the trickiest streets to film on and knew how many police it would take to do it safely. Whenever you dealt with the Beach, you brought Nelson in early."
He was tireless, say several production crew members, and seemed devoted to the industry. "He'd come out in the middle of the night to check on the site," remembers location manager Christina LaBuzetta. "I don't think he ever slept." LaBuzetta also recalls how Long employed a scraggly band of misfits to watch over the reserved parking spaces and to generally provide help. "I don't know if they were drunks or ex-drunks or what, but he'd hire the lowest common denominator," she says. "There was a woman who worked for him who was somewhat retarded, people no one would hire for anything. But he supervised them really well." Yet another location manager remembers how the ever-ready Long always had an extra supply of meter bags and barricades on hand in case of last-minute emergencies.