Baghdad West

In Opa-locka, gang warfare, drug dealing, and decay are a way of life

A 2004 followup found little improvement. A pair of grant-funded detectives struggled to tackle 60 cases a week; they had almost no investigative training. Officers were burning out. The five reserve cops Opa-locka hired failed to pass their probationary period. "The recruitment function is still nonexistent," the report stated.

In 2005 James Wright, an ambitious lieutenant from the Miami-Dade Police department, took over as Opa-locka's Police chief. Wright's was the first police chief contract to promise such a high degree of job security: a five-year guaranteed payout (whether the town dumps him or not). Detractors outraged by his juicy contract photocopied and distributed it throughout the city as a kind of effigy: his $98,500-a-year salary, take-home SUV, and Blackberry did not go over well with entrenched officers, many of whom regard him as an occupying force.

In a sense, he is. Wright is the first chief in the city's history to be brought in from outside the department.

Since his arrival he has tackled the department from the top down. After Wright took over, three administrative officers retired and a former chief, one lieutenant, and five officers resigned. He has demoted four lieutenants to beat cops and is openly waging war with the city manager, Jannie Beverly, who hired him.

He regards his mission of professionalizing OLPD with a humorless severity.

"I envision Opa-locka as a jewel in the crown of Miami-Dade County," he said, dressed in an immaculately pressed uniform and patent leather shoes. To the chagrin of Opa-locka's veteran cops, that vision did not include many of them. He has staffed vacant positions with people from outside the agency. His most recent officer hire, a female lieutenant, was brought down from Connecticut.

"I'm still not done," Wright said of his housecleaning, as he sat behind the desk in his white-carpeted office. A matching white Greek Revival couch sits against the far wall. Flanked by busts of Roman soldiers, copies of The 48 Laws of Powerand Sun Tzu's Art of Warare at arm's length.


t the geographical heart of Opa-locka — not one block away from city hall — a concrete monstrosity known as "the water tower" juts out of the skyline as a glaring symbol of the town's central dysfunction.

The derelict industrial facility is Rojas's white whale. He has railed about it being a city-owned haven for junkies and fugitives for the duration of his career, he says. Nothing has ever been done about it.

The tower was abandoned in 1985. Since then Opa-locka has paid Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer roughly $2 million a year for services. The 38,000-square-foot treatment facility sits empty, with vague plans to get it up and running. In the meantime the structure has filled with all kinds of biohazardous slime.

Last fall an exhaustive feasibility study by Florida International University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering brought the tower's sad state to the attention of city commissioners.

"Due to twenty years of idling, the water treatment plant had been trespassed by homeless people," wrote Dr. Walter Tang. "It became a major hazard for the city due to illegal dumping, illegal residence, and drug trafficking."

It could be saved, Tang explained. The state had already offered $5 million to turn it into a miraculous plant capable of turning out ten million gallons of reclaimed water a day. But the county is holding tight to the $6 million in matching funds needed to go ahead with the project.

"This is environmental injustice," Tang said by phone. "The county thinks the safety of those people is the city's problem. It is all of our problem. They need to re-invest in Opa-locka and they won't. Could it be because the town is 80 percent African-American? I can't think of any other reason."

(New Times attempted to contact City Manager Jannie Beverly,who was presented with the study in October. She has not returned multiple phone calls and was unavailable for comment at city hall on three separate occasions.)

On his way to the tower, Rojas swings by the S & D Wash House, a coin laundry at 621 Opa-locka Blvd.

"Hey, Hadley!" Rojas calls from the driver's seat. A man emerges from behind the counter, dressed like a television detective: blue-checked button-down shirt, tan pants, Timberland boots. His hair is maintained in a microscopic fade. His eyes dart to the corner across the street, where a pair of fat, scantily clad women are negotiating with a hairy drunk.

"Hey!" Hadley barks, yanking a thumb over his shoulder. The three drop their eyes in shame and scatter. Hadley sneers, turns to Rojas, and shakes his hand vigorously.

Steven Hadley describes his residence in Opa-locka with fatalistic stoicism, like an Orthodox Jewish settler in the West Bank.

"I live here; I have a vested interest here," he says, scanning the street for challengers. "I'm gonna be here until it's gone."

He was born in Overtown and moved to the outskirts of Opa-locka in the sixth grade. He can remember walking past the Brownlee house on his way to middle school.

Hadley enlisted in ROTC during his senior year of high school and left for the Army soon after graduation. "Opa-locka was always my reason for staying in the service," he said. "Every time I came back, I'd hear someone died, or went to jail, or caught AIDS."

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