Michael DeFilippi peers down a dingy Miami Beach alley a few blocks from Ocean Drive, watching intently as two men in red T-shirts and baseball caps disappear into the early-evening darkness. He's absolutely, positively convinced they're drug dealers — has been since hours earlier that November day, when, he says, the pair solicited him as he walked past them on the sidewalk.
By pure chance, a Miami Beach Police SUV rolls up to a red stoplight. DeFilippi waves frantically until the window slides open. A bald officer stares out, looking skeptical.
DeFilippi confidently sidles up to the vehicle. "I don't know what they're doing, but they went down there," he says, "and so you might catch them doing something."
The officer doesn't seem impressed. "Catch them doing what?" he asks flatly, now looking even leerier.
DeFilippi stumbles over his response. "Possibly, uh, I don't know — drug activity."
That vague claim is apparently enough to prompt the cops to check things out. The SUV turns down the alley at Tenth Street and Collins Court.
DeFilippi is triumphant. Not content with watching from afar, he strides down the alley to catch a glimpse of the officers sizing up a group of men — almost all of them black — and leading one to the back of the SUV. "Aren't I a good police officer?" he asks a reporter.
Until recently, the 33-year-old DeFilippi, a slim white guy with brown eyes, a mop of dark hair, and a serious expression, was best known as the affable environmentalist who spearheaded efforts to rid Miami Beach of Styrofoam and plastic bags. A real-estate agent by trade, he waded into activism by launching the Facebook group Clean Up Miami Beach, which in short order became a powerful voice for residents and earned praise from local politicians and Mark Zuckerberg himself.
DeFilippi's quick transformation from tree hugger to street-justice fighter began over the summer. Frustrated by what he saw as out-of-control criminal activity on the Beach, he joined forces with retired TV reporter John Deutzman to start the Facebook group Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness. Since July, they've been collecting data on repeat accused criminals they call "frequent fliers." They walk the streets filming those they consider suspicious, many of them homeless or minorities. Occasionally, they show up in court to push for more jail time. They also encourage their nearly 1,500 followers to report activity they consider suspicious.
The fledgling group has quickly become influential: City commissioners and state representatives have joined and praised its work. Police officers have made arrests based on DeFilippi's sometimes sketchy tips. And judges have bent to members' stiff sentencing demands. Miami Beach has also hired its own prosecutor to push punishment for city ordinance cases that might otherwise be dropped — low-level offenses such as carrying an open alcoholic beverage.
"I knew that when we started doing this stuff that it was going to have a big impact," DeFilippi says. "It's just a void that's being filled. I never really felt like there was a real engagement between the police officers and the community."
But controversy has been building around some of the group's attitudes and tactics. The public defender's office has fought to prevent members from testifying in court, arguing that advocating for higher bail solely to keep pretrial defendants behind bars skirts the presumption of innocence. Local homeless advocates have blasted the group as a thinly veiled effort to clear the Beach of those considered undesirable. An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) worries the whole thing could turn into a vehicle for racial profiling in a city critics have long called unwelcoming to African-Americans.
"The cops need to make sure they are not cosigning on any racial profiling or other unlawful type of quasi-policing," says Nancy Abudu, director of legal operations for the ACLU of Florida. "And these folks need to remember they're civilians, not cops."
DeFilippi and Deutzman scoff at criticism that they harass the homeless or minorities. Their group is passionate, grassroots, and sorely needed. All they're trying to do, they say, is make the community safer.
"I want to make a difference," DeFilippi says. "Like, I want to clean this freakin' place up."
Vigilante groups have existed for centuries, but the internet has made it easier than ever for them to organize and have real-life effects. New online vehicles for vigilantism have been appearing around the world lately — sometimes aiding crime-fighting efforts but also causing significant controversy. Social media banter and videos can easily distract police. Racism and homeless harassment are real concerns.
There's no question Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness is having a real impact offline. After DeFilippi pointed out the men in the alley that night in November, officers were able to do a search because they were posted behind a building displaying a "No Trespassing" sign. One of them, 43-year-old Jean Louis, had two previous arrests for possessing small amounts of weed. He was holding a marijuana cigarette, according to police. The other, 34-year-old David Harris, had a lengthy history of arrests for possession of cocaine and marijuana. In his pocket were a plastic bag with less than 20 grams of marijuana and a pipe with a tiny rock that officers suspected was crack cocaine.
Not long after DeFilippi flagged down the duo, the cops were placing the suspects in handcuffs and hauling them off to jail. The next day, Louis was released without penalty. The charges against Harris, however, are still pending.
At Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley, DeFilippi sat cross-legged before a wall covered with framed social media maxims such as "Be open," "Build social value," and "Focus on impact." Two seats to his left sat social media wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. As cameras rolled across the room, the billionaire CEO, wearing a signature gray T-shirt, declared that Facebook groups such as Clean Up Miami Beach have the power to heal widening divisions in America and around the world.
"I think part of what we need to do as a world is to come together to build the kind of communities that you guys are," Zuckerberg told DeFilippi and other group administrators assembled in the seats around him. "And it's really meaningful and special for us to be a part of your stories."
The event, held in February 2017 to celebrate Facebook's 13th birthday, was one of the surest signs of DeFilippi's influence. Only 19 users were invited, among them the leaders of groups such as the Dallas Amputee Coalition, which supports people who have lost limbs; the Tessara Collective, where women of color can openly discuss mental illness; and Girls Love Travel, a safety net aimed at empowering traveling women. They were selected as examples of the tech giant's capacity to connect people to do good.
For the better part of the past three years, that's how DeFilippi has been known in Miami Beach and beyond: as a do-gooder. His abrupt shift to freelance crime-fighter has taken even his closest allies by surprise. "It's amazing," Deutzman says. "He went from this plastic-bag crusade to this."
DeFilippi grew up in the small Massachusetts city of Agawam. At 18 years old, after four years on the student council at his high school, he ran for city council. On election night in November 2003, he won a seat — only to lose it weeks later in a recount that would, for a time, snuff out his interest in politics, he says. Records from the Agawam Clerk's Office show how close DeFilippi came: He lost by two votes after the recount, which his opponent had requested. Even today, he blasts the recount as "a total screw-job." He believes the other elected officials might have felt threatened because he was always "extremely opinionated," while "other people that run for office kind of stay within the system."
In a blog from that time, he shared some of his opinions on current events, in between tangents about running, videogames, and sports. One post offered a glimpse of the tough-on-crime kind of views that would eventually shape his efforts in Miami Beach. "Alcohol, along with drugs, changes people for the worse," he wrote, adding: "PEOPLE CAUGHT WITH DRUGS .....LIFE SENTENCE...BOTTOM LINE..." (Today he says he was being sarcastic and believes everyone deserves a fair sentence.)
With his political ambitions sidelined, DeFilippi enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where he majored in hospitality management. In 2009, he graduated and promptly moved to Orlando, where he found work as a real-estate agent. But a visit to Miami convinced him he'd picked the wrong city — he says he was drawn to the area's walkability, weather, and diversity. So around 2010, he relocated to South Beach. Though he remained in real estate, listing mostly luxury condos, he found a side gig: working as an extra. For several years, he made appearances in productions filmed locally, including a Jennifer Lopez music video and the short-lived Starz series Magic City.
DeFilippi might have continued down that path, except that in 2014, Clean Up Miami Beach began absorbing most of his free time. He started the Facebook group that year to organize trash pickups on the shoreline, but it quickly morphed into advocating for progressive environmental and quality-of-life legislation. "The cleanups, they're helpful, but they're not solving the big picture," DeFilippi says. "It's just like a little Band-Aid... We wanted to focus more on legislation and infrastructure that could make a real long-term impact."
A year after DeFilippi logged onto Facebook to set up the group, he celebrated its first victory: persuading the Beach's most populist commissioner, Michael Grieco, to sponsor an ordinance banning Styrofoam. After that measure passed, DeFilippi began lobbying public officials in other local municipalities to follow. Several did. In a July 2014 email to DeFilippi, Bal Harbour Councilwoman Patricia Cohen showered him with praise. "By dedicating yourself selflessly to preserving our environment with absolutely no ulterior motive, you are a shining example to others," she wrote. "I salute you."
Bolstered by his success, DeFilippi decided to give politics another try. He ran for city commission in 2015, centering his platform on environmental issues with proposals including putting trash cans on every street corner. His leadership, he told the New Tropic, would "transform this city into an even greater paradise." But he raised only $3,860, drew only 8.7 percent of votes, and ultimately lost to Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. Twelve years after his first commission race, his political dreams were again dashed.
Still, DeFilippi had the ears of commissioners through Clean Up Miami Beach, which nearly every one of them joined. Soon it wasn't uncommon for an issue to make its way from a post on the group's Facebook page to a piece of legislation on a commissioner's desk. By 2016, Facebook HQ was calling. In addition to flying DeFilippi to Menlo Park, the company chose him to attend its Communities Summit last summer in Chicago.
Over the course of 2017, Clean Up Miami Beach grew to more than 5,000 followers and took on a plethora of issues with varying degrees of success. When group members complained about a business that carried massive ads on a boat off the beach, the commission passed an ordinance aimed at banning the practice. But then commissioners learned they don't have the authority to regulate most offshore waters. Other efforts had a more lasting effect. After a long thread about Ocean Drive restaurants that chronically misled customers by charging hundreds of dollars for margaritas and paella, the planning board suspended the outdoor entertainment license of one of them, Il Giardino.
But one of the group's members wanted to focus on crime. Deutzman, a lanky New York transplant with blond hair he wears in a Justin Bieber-circa-2010 swoop, likes to describe himself as a combination of his two grandfathers — one a police officer, the other a newspaper publisher. He was a sportscaster for years before moving to South Florida in 1992. In Miami, he switched to news and then investigations at the station that would become CBS 4. He chased stories about people getting ripped off by parking meters and driving fancy cars to soup kitchens. He also went undercover to interview the operator of a site devoted to the appreciation of young boys for an exposé titled "Men Who Like Little Boys."
In 2001, Deutzman moved back in New York, where he had his most memorable on-camera moment. While he was filming a segment outside the home of an embattled city councilman, Allan W. Jennings, the hot-tempered local pol materialized from the side of the house and chucked a piece of metal at the reporter's back. "Had he hit me or my photographer in the eye or the head, it would have been ugly," Deutzman told the New York Times. "And it was a fastball. He wasn't messing around." The clip became 2005's equivalent of a viral video, even getting air time on The Daily Show , where a giggling Jon Stewart said it "may be my favorite thing ever."
After leaving the business, Deutzman returned to South Florida in 2014 and bought a condo in Miami Beach. Then 55, he enjoyed retired life for about two years until, he says, his evening stroll on the beach walk along Ocean Drive was interrupted by a "lurker" who yelled profanities at him. The episode made Deutzman leery of the people that hung out in the area between Eighteenth and Twentieth Streets near the beach walk. He began to suspect they were criminals — and confirmed as much by putting his reporting skills to work. When he showed up at a homeless committee meeting and reported that some of the homeless had criminal records, committee members brushed him off. He wrote to commissioners. He still wasn't satisfied.
So he turned to Clean Up Miami Beach. Below a post from DeFilippi about attempted robberies, Deutzman shared photos of a shirtless man sprawled out asleep on the beach walk and wrote that he had just been released from jail after being arrested for strong-arm robbery.
When someone asked how the "a-hole" had evaded law enforcement, Deutzman replied, "If you get in trouble, you can declare yourself 'homeless/indigent' and everyone will feel sorry for you." Over several weeks, Deutzman posted additional photos, as well as some of the stats he'd been compiling.
When a few group members argued the offenders needed rehab rather than hard time, Deutzman responded, "Your life will be much simpler if you can wrap your head around the fact that there are some shady people out there who will not be 'fixed' by your various good intentions."
It was then, DeFilippi says, the two "reached a point where it was like, this stuff needs its own thing."
Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness has a predecessor of sorts in Facebook-based neighborhood groups and Nextdoor, a social media network aimed at connecting communities. It also has parallels to so-called diligantism, a term for digital vigilantism that gained prominence after sleuths on sites such as Reddit and 4chan tried — and failed — to use cell-phone footage to identify the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Among digilante efforts is Perverted Justice, an online network of civilians who pose as teenagers to ensnare would-be pedophiles in stings that, for a time, were broadcast nationally on the NBC show To Catch a Predator. Another is Chapa Tu Choro, or "Catch Your Thief," a Facebook page started in 2015 by a Peruvian woman frustrated by the release of a suspected thief. That page spawned dozens of like-minded groups, where civilians share photos of alleged criminals they've brutalized. Then there's Citizen, an app backed by inspiration guru Deepak Chopra that alerts users to nearby 911 calls, urging them to head to the scene to livestream the crime and aftermath. "What if transparency existed — if we all knew where crime was occurring and how it was being resolved?" the company asked in a Medium post announcing the app. "Would crime as we know it still exist?"
Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness joined the ranks of internet-based crime-fighting groups July 10. For months, Deutzman had "felt like Mrs. Kravitz," the nosy Bewitched character who's positive that something suspicious is going on next door but can never convince anyone else. In the new Facebook group, he finally found a receptive audience.
As tourists ambled along Ocean Drive in the predusk golden light one November afternoon, a man stood with his head bowed and his hands flat on the back of a police car. A cop wearing a backwards cap with "POLICE" embroidered over the bill rifled through the pockets of his jeans. She pulled out two cell phones, a wallet, and several knots of tissues, then sat the man on the curb and began picking through his things.
A couple hundred feet away, DeFilippi and Deutzman were documenting the ordeal from behind a transformer box in Lummus Park. They had summoned police after DeFilippi said the man and an accomplice offered him drugs. As the search continued, the crime-scoping pair offered a kind of running commentary.
"This ain't Disney World," Deutzman observed.
The officer ended up letting the guy go. But that November evening was by no means a flop for the leaders of Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness: Just minutes before the alleged dealer was stopped by police, a different set of officers hauled off a shirtless man for loitering in the park. It was the result of another tip from the duo.
Since getting started six months ago, the group has racked up 1,490 members. And just like Clean Up Miami Beach, the crime-fighting group has seen its online discussions turn into local legislation — but this time at an even faster pace.
Soon after its inception, the group hosted its first offline meeting and selected a board of directors. In October, the board sent a demand letter to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Chief Judge Bertila Soto, and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Interim Director Daniel Junior.
"We are concerned for the safety of our residents, tourists, and visitors due to the presence of an intolerable number of people who are arrested multiple times a year and are rarely confined to jail more than the time it takes them to see a bond judge (usually one day)," it read. "These repeat offenders, lurking on our beach and in our parks, have created a dangerous environment as evidenced by recent rapes, robberies, and high levels of theft. This is putting our residents and visitors at risk."
They demanded that defendants' criminal histories receive more attention, that a standard bond be set for those with a large number of arrests, and that sentencing decisions take into account frequent offenders' damage to the community. And they demanded that judges adhere to a state statute requiring a minimum sentence of six months imprisonment for habitual misdemeanor offenders. "Bravo!!" one of the group members typed under a copy of the letter posted on the Facebook page. "We aren't going to take it anymore."
The list was based on the research Deutzman began gathering after the 2016 encounter that launched him on his crime-ridding mission. Using a mishmash of data from the state, city police department, and corrections system, he estimated that in 2016, only 1.7 percent of 5,431 misdemeanor arrests in Miami Beach ended in sentences — a number he called "unconscionable." Among the people hanging around Lummus Park, he discovered, were some with scores of arrests. The worst offender has been arrested a whopping 343 times.
"The county is running a de facto jail on our most precious property," Deutzman says. Though misdemeanors aren't major crimes, he says, "the cumulative effect is like death by a thousand cuts."
His indignation grew after a homeless man who Deutzman says had been arrested 21 times in the previous two years was identified by police as the assailant who sexually assaulted a tourist in Lummus Park last J yuly. On Derrick Wiggins' record were arrests for indecent exposure, lewd and lascivious behavior, and attacks on women. There were, Deutzman wrote in an email to city commissioners, "many red flags ignored by the justice system." As a resident and taxpayer, he added, he felt embarrassed and personally responsible for the brutal attack.
DeFilippi, who hadn't paid much mind to crime since becoming active in Miami Beach politics, felt enlightened by Deutzman's research. And like that, a guy who as a commission candidate told the New Tropic he would allocate $0 out of a $100,000 budget for public safety, was espousing a zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime approach. When the crime prevention group selected its board, DeFilippi offered to serve as president. "Miami Beach is a free-for-all," he said. "People can pretty much do whatever they want. And I think that once you start enforcing the smaller crimes, it'll have an effect on the bigger crimes."
As the Facebook group got going last summer, city leaders such as Grieco joined. The commissioner, who would later resign in disgrace, had previously engaged in amateur police work himself, making headlines in 2016 after being filmed busting a drug deal while on a shirtless run through Miami Beach. "There's been a very frustrating turnstile going on for decades," Grieco says. "Very, very frustrating."
Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness also established a relationship with the city police department. Some officers, including a captain who oversees the entertainment district unit, became members. DeFilippi and several other group members received training on how to serve as the eyes and ears of police. Without explicitly endorsing the new group, Chief Daniel Oates tells New Times the department welcomes and encourages civilians to report suspicious activity.
"It's a grassroots advocacy group, and they've gotten a lot of traction," he says. "We're trying to be — as we would with any group — as cooperative as we can be."
Inside a wood-paneled courtroom in downtown Miami, Deutzman stands behind a microphone after being sworn in to testify. Holding a stack of notes, he peers up at the judge through the glasses resting at the bottom of his nose. He's here to demand higher bond for Donnie Simms, a repeat petty criminal arrested for felony grand theft after DeFilippi reported him for stealing a Citi Bike.
But before Deutzman can finish introducing himself, public defender Terryann Howell cuts in. "I'm sorry," she exclaims, standing beside a stone-faced Simms. "Before this individual starts speaking, Your Honor, we would argue, Judge, that this individual does not have standing to testify in court —"
"Your honor," Deutzman stammers.
The fast-talking Howell isn't stopping. "He can appear in court to observe the proceedings as the community. He does not have standing to address this court... because he is not the alleged victim."
The October 23 exchange was the most visible pushback the still-young group has received so far. It ended with Deutzman threatening legal action against the public defender's office and Judge Mindy Glazer telling him the office "is doing their job, just so you know."
But others are taking issue with some of the group's beliefs and tactics. From bond reform advocates to civil liberties organizations, critics question whether Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness is making the community safer or merely targeting marginalized groups in an effort that could lead to unjust or dangerous consequences.
"I understand they're frustrated because they see the same folks coming back over and over and over again," says Gordon Weekes, Broward County's assistant public defender. "But you've also got to look at the safety net that exists within the community... You cannot arrest yourself out of every single problem that you face."
Indeed, some posts on the Facebook page have taken questionable turns: Members have filmed videos of homeless people having sex and suggested banning repeat offenders from the city, which, of course, is not legal.
On one occasion, group members were discussing setting up a sting on the beach by leaving a bag as bait. Grieco, who by then had resigned his commission seat after pleading no contest to improper campaign practices, seemed to support the tactic, claiming "only the government can entrap."
Wrote DeFilippi: "I'd love to 'entrap' a scumbag."
Someone else added, "Razor blades. Seriously. Let them get cut up." (Chief Oates says this kind of talk goes too far. "Stings are not appropriate for civilian groups to conduct.")
Valerie Navarrete, an advocate for the homeless in Miami Beach, has been stunned by the direction the group has taken. Though she was pleased when she learned of the group and joined right away, she's been ejected three times. Nonstop posts about the homeless have bothered her, and she complained until DeFilippi finally told her the board had decided she couldn't "coexist" with what they're trying to do.
"You know what? Just change the name of the group, because they are not creating crime awareness," she says. "They are — I don't know what they're doing. They're just being prejudicial to the homeless."
Navarrete is not alone. Others worry about a not-so-subtle bias. One post termed a free public bus from Miami to Miami Beach a "Homeless Party Bus." The captain of the police department's entertainment district squad, Ian Robinson, even wrote, "Divert it to TGK!" referring to the county jail, Turner Guilford Knight. (Chief Oates says the post "was an attempt at humor and clearly inappropriate." He adds that Robinson was "counseled" and "understands the importance of our department maintaining a proper and objective posture in regards to all issues involving the homeless.")
Below a video showing a black woman bent over twerking in the street, one group member wrote, "Play ghetto rap music at every venue all night, this is the crowd you get."
Deutzman says group members sometimes joke around, but he watches for posts that cross the line and has turned off commenting and removed group members when warranted.
Abudu, the ACLU lawyer, points out Miami Beach is already "notorious" for racial profiling, citing heightened surveillance and police shootings during Urban Beach Week. Without proper training or supervision, she fears, group members could be guided by prejudice in reporting behavior they think is suspicious.
Asked whether she has ever seen anything like the group before, she bluntly compares it to George Zimmerman, the Sanford neighborhood watch coordinator who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. "I'm not trying to be extreme," she says, "but this kind of behavior, if it's not closely monitored and done in the right way, could lead to a situation like that."
Word of the group seems to be getting out. On a recent afternoon, two men held up their cell phones and circled DeFilippi and Deutzman in Lummus Park while apparently recording video. "I'm going to show this to my attorney," one of the men said.
DeFilippi, who quickly pretended to be discussing the city's architecture, huffed that the encounter amounted to harassment.
Later that night, while on the prowl for suspicious activity, he approached a group of police officers. He wanted to show them footage of men he suspected were drug dealers. But instead of chasing down the purported criminals, one of the cops pulled DeFilippi aside and told him he didn't seem to understand how policing worked. The ACLU could come after the department, the officer said.
Oates, told of the exchange, says it sounds like the officers acted appropriately. But in the moment, DeFilippi was not pleased. After the cops left that night, he grumbled that in their concern about "a lawsuit that's probably not even going to happen," they had let the men he believed to be dealers get away. "I wish I could come out here with a paintball gun," he muttered. "Fucking nail these guys."
DeFilippi has only just bitten into a piece of falafel at a no-frills restaurant off Ocean Drive when the squawk of an air horn suddenly drives him to his feet. He darts out of Miami Mediterranean Cuisine midmeal to track down the source of the unexpected sound.
He soon returns, but minutes later, before he's finished eating, he's back out the door again to confront a man he says is a local addict. As the man, nicknamed "Turtle," walks down the street while holding a covered plate and a kitten, DeFilippi aims his iPhone and hits record. "Hey, Turtle!" he calls out. "What'd you get tonight at Tuto & Sons?"
Turning around, the man warily responds, "Food."
The two then go their separate ways, and DeFilippi posts the encounter on his group's Facebook page. It makes one wonder what Turtle had done to deserve the attention.
To accompany DeFilippi on one of his unofficial patrols through Miami Beach is to be constantly running toward blaring sirens, stray Citi Bikes, and any number of potential drug dealers. "I don't know where our Uber is," he says, again and again, when he thinks a cover is needed.
Nothing escapes his notice: He shouts at a party bus driving on Ocean Drive with its doors hanging open and revelers dancing inside, then asks a man with a snake draped around his neck whether he has a permit.
The goal of all this is to make clear that crime is now being taken seriously in the community, to make residents and tourists feel more comfortable and criminals less comfortable. "If we could dynamite the bridges, we'd solve a lot of our problems," Deutzman says with a laugh. Short of that, the group plans to continue collecting data on offenders and pushing for new legislation.
DeFilippi floats ideas such as penalizing Miami Beach retailers who don't show up in court after initiating prosecution, incentivizing cops to live in the city where they work, and hiring officers to patrol the sand. In the meantime, he'll continue his informal patrols, during which, records show, he has called police as many as five times in one night and more than 50 times between September and December.
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Deutzman marvels at DeFilippi's level of interest. "I kind of by accident got him involved in this, and he loves it," he says. "I told him: 'You should be a cop.' He's like totally consumed by this."
Is DeFilippi, who says he spends ten to 20 hours a week on crime issues, taking his efforts too far? An ex-cop in the group says he's tried to warn the activist he's putting himself in danger.
Yet DeFilippi is not blind to the risk. "I'm going to end up getting killed out here," he says.