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.

By the time she arrives at the store she finds no fewer than eighteen other officers already on the scene. Bright security lights along the store's roof illuminate the scene below, and cast an eerie glow on a mural of murdered gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur that covers one large wall of the market.

In Model City, street corners and stores like Partners Grocery are the sidewalk cafes and tony nightclubs of more affluent Miami neighborhoods, according to officers who work the C-shift. On the sidewalk outside a convenience store a person can enjoy a beer with friends without the need for fancy clothes, paying a cover charge, or buying a three-course dinner. And for many, the sidewalk is preferable to Model City's few bars, none of which, Harris says, is safe.

The stores also serve as informal social centers: Mothers bring their children when they pick up diapers; children buy their first cigarettes; teenagers their first beers. Neighborhood comedians practice their routines before a friendly audience. With the exception of church on Sunday, the corner store may be the most established and comfortable meeting place in the neighborhood.

But police officers also know them to be flash points for crime and violence. Major drug markets often develop in vacant lots near the stores or in the alleys behind them. A lone officer questioning a suspect in such a setting risks the possibility of confrontation. "Friday and Saturday nights are the worst," says Harris. "Before you know it, things can happen and you can have a large crowd developing."

At Partners Grocery Harris elbows her way toward the center of the crowd, where Cordero and Ofcr. Lester Cole appear to be engaged in some sort of confrontation with unseen suspects. "You want to fuck with me?!" Cole screams, the veins in his temples pumping. He dramatically shakes an index finger. "I'll show you who you're fucking with!"

Cordero also looks irate, her dark eyes flashing in the glare of the overhead lights. But Harris isn't yet close enough to see the suspects whose behavior led to this chaotic scene. Cole, however, is clearly visible. He's thick and broad-shouldered, with a barrel chest and pumped biceps that bulge under the short sleeves of his uniform. One of the few Anglo officers in Model City, his bulk and his shaved head give him a distinctly menacing appearance. "You don't know who you're fucking with!" he shouts again before stomping away.

Now Harris can see the offenders. One is a slightly built teenager slumped on a bus-stop bench. The other is equally young and scrawny; he sits perched on the back of the bench. Short dreadlocks poke out from their heads. Their eyes are glassy and they blankly stare straight ahead. Apparently they had refused to answer Cordero's questions. Then Cole arrived and began screaming at them. Then more and more and more officers pulled up and surrounded them. Reluctantly, they now decide to cooperate.

"How old are you?" Cordero demands.
"Sixteen," one answers quietly.
"Seventeen," the other adds.

"Do you know we've got a curfew in Miami? You aren't supposed to be out here after midnight. What are you doing here? Where do you live?"

"Around the corner," answers one boy, and he gives his address.
Harris moves in close and plants herself at Cordero's right side, seemingly eager to get involved -- but she says nothing. Suddenly an obese woman in tight-fitting shorts pushes her way through the crowd. A half-dozen teenagers follow her like ducklings after their mother. "I want to know who's been slapping my baby!" she hollers.

"Stand back, ma'am!" Cordero yells.
"Officer, you been slapping my baby and that ain't right!" she insists.
"Nobody's been slapping anybody!" Cordero replies loudly as more teenagers gather to stare at the swarm of police officers.

Cordero directs her attention to a young girl standing next to the mother. "Are you eighteen?" she bellows. Before the girl can answer, Cordero continues: "Then go home! I want all these people out of here, now!" she shrieks.

And with that, the other police officers stop talking, snap to attention, and begin dispersing the crowd.

"It ain't right," the mother says again, shaking her head. "Hon, if these officers hit you, that ain't right, and we goin' to do something about it. Did anyone lay hands on you?"

By now the second boy has slipped away, though Cordero doesn't inquire as to his whereabouts or try to find him. The remaining teen quietly tells his mother that no one has slapped him.

"At least you told the truth one time," Cordero snaps.
Soon the drama subsides. The police climb back into their squad cars and pull away. The neighbors bicycle and walk off. Cordero returns to her car, the youth to his mother.

Harris resumes her patrol. In the early-morning hours she has one more encounter with the suspected drug dealer who had angered her. She finds him at a convenience store. "You know he just lives on the streets," she says. "The store was closed and we told him to get out of there. But he hadn't moved when we came back around. He had a juvenile with him who had some stuff on him, but we didn't catch him with any drugs."

Still, Harris managed to arrest him. "For loitering and prowling," she says, pleased with herself.

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