The Pros Have It

The school board hired cop's cop Pete Cuccaro to straighten out the nutty mess that the school police had become -- and let him do his job!

Tattoo is sitting in his patrol car under a tree, watching small groups of kids crawling to class as slowly as ants across Douglas MacArthur South High School's parklike campus. Seventeen acres of near-pastoral charm slapped into a lower-middle-class slice of Kendall Lakes West: "Mac South" is what the self-deprecating slackers call their place of higher learning. It's one of the prime sites where other Miami-Dade schools dump their problems. For many of the 300-odd students, it's the last stop before Juvie Justice, or a job at One-Day Autobody.

As the teenagers -- mostly boys, mostly from the county's poorer sections -- stroll by the school police car, some wave or nod; a few call out: "Hey, Hurley!" Nodding back is Ofcr. Charles Hurley, a compact 30-year-old with large vivid tattoos covering his muscular forearms like an extension of the dark blue uniform sleeves that cover his biceps. Mornings like these he makes a slow tour of the campus, touching base with security monitors, teachers, and administrators. "Is everything okay? No problems?" Hurley asks.

"Naw, no problems," responds security supervisor Joe Coats, from his golf-cart roost. Then he laughs, stretches his arms over the steering wheel, and says what everybody always says: "Not yet."

Steve Satterwhite
MacArthur South High's Ofcr. Charles Hurley is as much coach and counselor as cop
Steve Satterwhite
MacArthur South High's Ofcr. Charles Hurley is as much coach and counselor as cop

Hurley lets his foot slip the brake, and the white-and-blue cruiser slowly rolls on. He glances at the speedometer, under which a miniature, two-dimensional Dan Marino in full Dolphins regalia regards him from a protective plastic case. He smiles contentedly, a man whose major passions are his wife and daughter, his job, and grilling enormous slabs of meat in the parking lot of Pro Player Stadium every couple of weeks. As his car turns a corner, heading toward the workshop where some students learn an electrical trade, a lanky, towheaded boy points at Hurley in greeting. The car stops and the window rolls down. "How you doing?" he gently accuses. "Staying out of trouble?" The boy attempts to suggest he has been. "Yeah, you know, always," the student tries, with a sloppy shrug and grin. As Hurley moves on, another boy with wiry black hair calls to him. "Stay up, man! You know the code!" And he does know.

Later in the day Hurley will explain the curious popularity he enjoys, a wary respect the students accord him because even though he is a cop, he's not like the stuffed uniforms they may have encountered in the streets and already learned to distrust. He knows these kids, their turbulent family lives, their daily challenges ... As irritating as it is when he busts somebody for small-time drug deals, skipping school, or fighting, Hurley believes most of the students are relieved he's there every day, pushing back when they test the limits. The way he puts it is much simpler. "Kids like rules," he says, bespectacled brown eyes twinkling under a Marine-style haircut. "They like to feel safe -- even if they're the biggest thug."

At a Cuban restaurant around the corner, Hurley's almost constant stream of chatter turns to his own problems. He orders a large platter of vaca frita with all the fixings. Usually his wife makes him take a bag lunch, so this is a treat. The main thing on Hurley's mind is money, since during this time his union is at the end of a two-year battle with the school district over pay raises.

None of the 164 officers whose salaries depend on the outcome of that struggle know what to expect, and it's had an effect on morale. "The department is kind of in a holding pattern," Hurley muses. "It's like we're on a launching pad. If things come through, we'll take off."

Hurley is talking about more than just money, though right now that's the hot issue in the department. He's talking about Pete Cuccaro, the new chief of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police Department. Not new, exactly, since he was hired by the school board in March 2000, but new in that he is transforming the department. Hurley and more than a dozen other officers who spoke to New Times believe Cuccaro is turning their department around; they admit it had a long, often-deserved reputation for being unprofessional. "Day-care workers, baby sitters, campus cops," union negotiator Joe Puleo ticks off the labels that have been applied to the school police.

Less than two years ago, the school police was riddled with problems. The department's long-standing tradition of hiring and promoting officers with questionable qualifications had finally caught up with it. Then-Chief Vivian Monroe was at odds with a growing number of officers, who were outraged at her practice of promoting her friends and protecting her allies by meddling in police investigations. The State Attorney's Office and other police agencies also were concerned about the way investigations were conducted. Top school officials were embarrassed.

Then in early 2000 the school district brain trust hit upon an ingenious solution to this growing headache. They brought in a professional to run the place, retired county policeman Pete Cuccaro, a guy who once walked out of a consulting deal for the hit Eighties series Miami Vice because he didn't like the brutal way Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs were being portrayed. Under the guidance of this new chief, the school police has been given a second chance. Slowly the force has begun to transcend its former reputation. But not without growing pains. "I think the new chief had to learn a lot about the way things are done in Miami-Dade public schools that's different from Metro-Dade," notes school board member Manty Sabates Morse. "He was probably surprised."

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