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The Miami-Dade Police Department's response to a recent bomb scare in his city was inadequate, claims Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. And he's using the incident to push for his municipality's secession from Florida's largest county.
About 6:30 a.m. on Friday, February 19, an unknown caller warned of an explosion at Hialeah High School, police say. Authorities were particularly alarmed because there had been similar incidents. Just the day before, a caller had threatened to toss an acid bomb at the school, Martinez reports. And on December 9 the school system's police had arrested a student who detonated a bomb on the roof, causing smoke but no damage or injuries.
Police evacuated more than 2000 students and searched the building, but found nothing suspicious. "We wanted to err on the side of caution," comments Deputy Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools Henry Fraind. Investigators traced the threatening call to a pay phone, but so far there have been no arrests.
Martinez is frustrated. Although the city asked the county bomb squad for help, only one officer and a dog eventually showed up. The mayor says that was too little, too late. Someone could have been hurt. If Hialeah had its own bomb locaters and more control over its services, the students and everyone else would be safer.
"Our police did the best we could, but we didn't have the ability to go in there and detect bombs," Martinez says. "We called the county and the answer was they were not going to come out."
Both at a recent city council meeting and on the front page of the February 25 El Nuevo Herald, Martinez used the explosive scare to hammer home his point that the county is unresponsive to Hialeah's needs. That alleged unresponsiveness caused the city council to vote unanimously for secession on February 23. (The idea still must be approved by the state legislature.)
But the incident may not be the blemish on county services that Martinez maintains it is. Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez says the mayor was misinformed about how the bomb squad works. The county's six bomb-sniffing canines are available anytime, but only if the area to be examined is limited in size.
"The dogs are trained to search a concentrated area for explosives," Alvarez points out. "It would be useless to have them search an entire high school." Alvarez asserts the county policy has worked for decades; the dogs and the six-member squad are dispatched only when local police find a suspicious item.
"You get bomb threats every day," he adds. "For [the bomb squad] to go and just stand there would not be productive."
Alvarez can't say how many warnings there were in Miami-Dade last year or how many times police agencies scouted schools, businesses, and other locations for explosives. But he does know that the county bomb squad responded to 154 calls in 1998. In 38 of those incidents officers actually recovered explosives. No one was injured. Eight of those calls came from Hialeah.
Hialeah placed third among police agencies in bomb-squad requests after the county police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "So we are responsive," Alvarez contends.
Moreover, in the past ten years only two people have died in explosions, according to Miami-Dade police. On June 7, 1991, a car bomb killed one man in a drug-related incident. And in January 1996 a bus bench rigged with a bomb took the life of another man.
The bomb squad was not warned in either case.
The high school case was different, Martinez counters. "When you have had a prior problem with an individual, [the county should respond]."
Martinez is scheduled to meet with County Manager Merrett Stierheim and Alvarez this week to review this incident and possibly other concerns. Alvarez doesn't know whether the mayor has more criticisms of the county's police department.
Alvarez says the only call he has received from Hialeah recently was related to cost-cutting: "Awhile ago they asked whether we could take over their SWAT team. We said okay, but they changed their minds."