The Late Shift

Miami's mean streets are being patrolled by a new breed of cop -- smart, young, tough, hip to the neighborhood. And she's ambitious, too.

The 31-year-old Harris, tall and slender as a runway model, hardly looks sturdy enough to carry a hefty 40-caliber Glock pistol and wear a heavy bulletproof vest -- much less to engage in combat with local bad guys. But in fact she relishes in-your-face encounters with the criminal element, despite the risks. "If you've noticed," she says, "I'm the only female who responds to active calls."

Roll call at the North District Substation. Harris glides into a seat behind a long white table as Sgt. Darlene Cordero, who supervises Model City's C-shift patrol team, stands at a small podium at the front of a conference room. She discusses a planned sweep of a street corner notorious for its drug activity, and runs through other business and assignments. "Also if you get a chance, hit 79th Street," she concludes. "Residents are complaining again about the prostitutes. Some of those ladies are men," Cordero adds, eliciting chuckles.

Harris walks to squad car number 5890, a 1992 Chevrolet Caprice. Inside she examines her long, coral-colored nails and runs her hands down both sides of her hair, which she has dyed auburn and straightened into a neat pageboy reaching just to the bottom of her ears. She then places her notebook on the padded black box between the front seats. From her rearview mirror hang two tiny, silver replicas of handcuffs and a Tweety Bird Christmas tree ornament. The dashboard, seats, and carpets are spotless. She picks up the notebook and sets it down again, placing it exactly perpendicular to the top of the black box. She is exceedingly tidy.

After graduating from Norland Senior High, Harris landed a job with the Sports Authority sporting-goods chain and worked her way up to middle management. In the process she attended about two years of college. A transfer to Tampa left her terribly homesick, so she returned to Miami and got a job with the police department as a public service aide. She worked out of the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, supervised by a police officer. One night while on patrol in the so-called black Grove, she and her supervisor stopped to question a suspected drug dealer who was riding a bicycle. "We pulled up and the guy on the bike got off and started running," Harris recalls. "The officer got out and started running behind him, through an alleyway. He left me in the passenger side of the car, and I said, 'Oh, no. Now what do I do?' So I started the car and took off after him. The supervisor told me I ought to be a police officer because I was aggressive. So I went to the academy."

At her first-ever target practice, she toted up a perfect score. "The guys kept asking me, 'Are you sure you never shot a gun before?'" After graduating from the School of Justice and Safety Administration at Miami-Dade Community College, she completed her eighteen-month probation at the Wynwood/ Edgewater NET office. Six months ago, when the department gave officers an opportunity to bid for the assignments they wanted, she chose the night shift so she could spend more time with her three young children; a standard ten-hour day shift left her too few daylight hours to share with them. She also preferred to work in Model City. (Model City is part of a larger area commonly called Liberty City, which extends beyond Miami's city limits into unincorporated Dade County.) "A lot of officers who don't work here don't want to -- they just think it's too dangerous. But after they're here for a while they like it. I like it because you see a lot of action."

Her first bit of action on this night, however, doesn't involve a criminal -- at least not a human criminal. A fierce dog has stationed itself outside a resident's home, and she gets the assignment. "I'm an animal person," says Harris, whose boyfriend of five years operates a pet shop, "but I don't know what I can do about a mean dog."

After meeting the woman who called, and using her flashlight to see that the growling dog is baring its fangs, Harris decides to wait for Metro-Dade Animal Control officers. More than an hour passes before they arrive, and ultimately they are unable to catch the canine. Harris takes notes as the forlorn and frightened woman watches helplessly from behind her screen door. Elapsed time: two hours.

A quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of immaculately kept single-family homes stretches from State Road 112 north to 67th Street and from NW Seventh Avenue west to Twelfth Avenue. This is one of the areas Lt. Brenda Williams has in mind when she speaks of decent, hard-working Model City residents. Harris's grandparents once lived in the community; as children she and her brother spent many weekends at the bungalow her grandfather built.

West of busy Twelfth Avenue, however, the environment changes. Apartment buildings, many of them poorly maintained, begin to appear among the houses. And the houses themselves are not so neat and clean. Vacant lots, overgrown with weeds, are a common sight. Even the foliage seems to suffer -- it's not nearly as lush as that east of Twelfth. And as any police officer even remotely familiar with the area knows, drug activity flourishes.

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