By Ryan Yousefi
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A dispatcher's call crackles over the radio: Shop owner threatened, suspect is armed, location is one-seven and six-nine. Miami police officer RRonni Harris steps on the gas and zooms through the darkness toward the scene, which translates from police argot as NW Seventeenth Avenue and 69th Street.
Harris knows that such incidents can quickly escalate to deadly violence. In her patrol area -- the predominantly black neighborhood known as Model City, which stretches from State Road 112 to 79th Street and from NW Second to NW Seventeenth avenues -- store owners often keep guns for protection. Any confrontation in which both parties have weapons is going to be extremely dangerous.
She and another officer arrive simultaneously at George's Food Land market, but there are no overt signs of trouble. A few people are standing near the store's entrance, casually talking. After a quick look around, Harris sees that no one appears to be frightened, and no one seems menacing. She parks her car and heads for the front door, but the owner intercepts her before she enters. "He already left," he snarls. "I couldn't leave my store while he was here. But now he's already gone. It takes you so long -- I've got to take care of myself."
Harris asks for a description of the suspect but the irritated owner won't cooperate: "After it's all over the police come and ask what he looks like. Why didn't you come and see what he looks like?"
The shop owner's animosity doesn't surprise Harris. She is often berated, upbraided, lied to, and threatened. Hostility follows her everywhere -- when she stops at corners, when she interviews drug suspects, even when she speaks with crime victims. "People see it as, 'I pick up the phone and dial 911 -- if it's an emergency, I expect the police to be here now,'" Harris says. Callers, of course, have no way of knowing whether the patrol squad might be short-staffed that night, or whether radio dispatchers are overwhelmed with crime reports at that moment. "As soon as you get there," Harris explains, "they are already agitated because of their problem, and agitated because you're late getting there. You get screamed at, you get yelled at. You just say, 'Sorry sir.'"
In Model City and other black neighborhoods, the enmity between residents and police -- even black officers like Harris -- has historical roots dating back at least to the fearsome riots of 1980, which were sparked by the acquittal of four white policemen charged with brutally murdering Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old black insurance agent. In an effort to reduce the antipathy, Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw has assigned a high priority to hiring and promoting minority officers. Today the 1027-member force is 60 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. Warshaw has also emphasized a technique known as community policing, in which officers are encouraged to become visible allies of the residents in their patrol areas. "In the past," says the chief, "if you had asked most police officers where they worked, they would give you a number, a zone. Now they give you a neighborhood."
One example of Warshaw's efforts to have the police force more closely mirror the community was his promotion of Brenda Williams to lieutenant and overall supervisor of the officers working in Model City, one of three neighborhoods covered by the staff of the city's North District Substation, located at NW Tenth Avenue and 62nd Street. Tough, bluntly outspoken, and devoted to the residents she serves, Williams organizes campouts and basketball games for kids at the same time she schedules raids to harass or arrest some of their brothers, uncles, or fathers. Her motivation is drawn from a simple conviction: "Model City is not about rioting, it's not all about drugs; it's about decent, hard-working people who want what people in Coconut Grove want -- peace of mind."
But in the late-night hours, most of those decent, hard-working citizens are asleep. The people RRonni Harris encounters on the street during her shift (from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., known as the C-shift) are often young, rebellious, and suspicious of any authority. Too many of them are also violent. Last year two-thirds of the city's 128 murders occurred in Model City and Little Haiti, the neighborhood directly east of Harris's patrol area. Half of the city's assaults and 46 percent of the rapes occurred in those two neighborhoods as well.
Five-year-old Rickia Issac was walking home from the Martin Luther King Day parade in January when she was killed by a stray bullet at NW Nineteenth Avenue and 61st Street -- just ten blocks from the northern substation. Earlier that month, during Harris's shift, Ofcr. Ricky Taylor was shot in the head while sitting in his patrol car. "It so happens I was off," Harris recalls. "It was a trauma. It still frightens me when I go down there. It was between Thirteenth and Fourteenth on 61st Street. It's so dark because they keep shooting out the street lights."
Since this past February, the tension between police and neighborhood residents has perceptibly heightened as patrol officers like Harris implement Chief Warshaw's ambitious twenty-point program designed to take guns off the street. The police have raided bars to look for guns and to enforce state liquor laws. They have set up roadblocks to ticket for traffic infractions and search for contraband. And they have staged high-visibility "sweeps" to seize illegal weapons and drugs from street-corner dealers.