Jailhouse Squawk

Merge the county's police and corrections departments? Get ready for a racial divide

Joe Martinez is picking quite a fight. The District 11 county commissioner recently asked Miami-Dade's manager to study the possibility of merging the county's police department and its corrections department. By even broaching the subject, Martinez, chairman of the commission's public safety committee, is squaring off with several politically noisy groups, including high-ranking corrections managers, most of whom are black; a black-oriented employee group; and the black commissioners who have historically protected the corrections department.

So come ringside and let's get ready to rrrrrumble.

On June 10 Martinez and his fellow commissioners received the "Manager's Report Regarding Potential Reunification of Miami-Dade Police and Corrections," a slim memorandum that blithely zipped through a consolidation plan in three pages of budgetary analyses, with another seven pages of charts. The term "reunification" was used because the two departments used to be combined. They were divided in 1973. Today the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a distinct county agency running the jail system that houses inmates convicted of misdemeanor crimes who are incarcerated for a year or less, and those awaiting trial on more serious charges. Miami-Dade is one of the only counties in the state to have such a division of labor between police and corrections departments.

Commissioner Joe Martinez wants to merge police and jails in order to save money, but others smell a rat
Commissioner Joe Martinez wants to merge police and jails in order to save money, but others smell a rat

"A Department of Public Safety or similarly named entity would likely house an Administrative Division, a Police Operations Division, and a Jail Operations Division. The Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC) would become a unit of the Jail Operations Division," the report states. A list of jobs that could be consolidated -- meaning eliminated -- was also provided. It looks like the majority of the cuts would come from the corrections side of the equation. Then the report notes: "First year savings could total $3,587,000" with potential for more in years ahead.

So far Martinez likes what he sees. "It looks like there's three million dollars-plus in savings the first year alone, so now it merits looking into," he says, emphasizing this was only a preliminary look at the numbers.

Of course, with the resignation of Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver, who stepped down just days after issuing the report, things are on hold. New Manager George Burgess will have more pressing issues stacked on his desk before he gets around to studying the minutiae of combining two massive and complex agencies. Right now the PD has about 4500 employees and a $400 million budget; corrections comes in at about half that with 2600 employees and a $200 million budget. In addition, the director of corrections, Lois Spears, retired at the end of April. Acting director Charles McRay is in charge for the moment. So this may not be the best time to instigate huge changes.

But Martinez is not giving up. "I'm going to give him [Burgess] a couple of weeks to settle in and then ask him to take a look at it. This is on my front burner."

Front burners can be quite hot, and Martinez may get scorched in the expected political fight -- a predictable one for Miami. Corrections is seen as a "black department," one of the first and few to give blacks a chance at management positions within county government. As such it has been protected by many black commissioners over the years. In fact one former corrections director, Donald Manning, was a confidant and campaign manager for former Commissioner James Burke. (Burke knows a few things about the corrections system; he's currently serving a 27-month sentence in federal prison for bribery and money-laundering.) Anti-merger advocates will be turning for help to Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, who sits on the public safety committee with Martinez. (Rolle could not be reached for comment.)

Clearly Martinez, a Cuban and former Miami-Dade cop, is treading into forbidding territory. Cory Barney, president of the Organization of Minority Corrections Officers (OMCO), is already denouncing Martinez's plan as an attempt to steal power from blacks and transfer it to the Latinos in corrections and the police department. "When we start talking about letting them [police] control the hiring, pretty soon we'll look like the police." That is, not a lot of black faces in corrections.

"I don't see a 'black' department," Martinez muses. "I see a county department." And, he adds, his job is to safeguard the public's cash. At the same time he says he's not naive and knows how this will be perceived. "But who's to say the next director of public safety won't be an African American?"

Meanwhile Barney rounded up roughly 100 members of OMCO to pack the commission chambers during the June 10 public safety committee meeting, all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Say No to Consolidation" slogans. In the past the police department neglected corrections, he alleges. "We had the hand-me-down vehicles, the hand-me-down weapons from police," Barney complains. "We were the stepchildren in terms of the needs and wants of the department."

Why would Martinez enter into this racially divisive fray? What could he gain from a difficult, if not improbable, proposal like this? He says it's simply about saving money: "I'm looking to streamline anywhere we can trim fat." But he's also made it clear he's fed up with problems in corrections. When he found out in April that building officials declared the main jail, Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, so dilapidated it might have to be closed for repairs, he was apoplectic. "It's been going on for years and we just found out?" he told me at the time. "That's just ineptitude!" The prospect of moving thousands of inmates to temporary quarters is the kind of reputation-staining nightmare that might make a commissioner think politically impractical thoughts.

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