Turf wars over drug territory have sent the homicide rate in Overtown up 120 percent from last year, according to Miami Police Department figures. Between January and November, eleven murders had been reported in the beleaguered neighborhood, as opposed to five homicides during the same period in 2003.
"Drug dealers from other areas had their operations shut down, and they tried to move into Overtown," says Cmdr. Bobbie Meeks, head of the Overtown district. "For instance, the Scott [housing] projects out in the county was torn down, and they had a pretty bad drug problem. Those guys didn't stop what they were doing -- they tried to move into Model City and Overtown."
The increase in killings marks a dangerous regression; Overtown had only six homicides from January to November 2002, then five last year, a dramatic decrease from 2000 and 2001, when there were ten and nine homicides respectively over the same eleven months.
Signs of drug-related activity are often obvious in Overtown: A group of ten emaciated figures emerges from the shadows of the I-95 overpass on NE Fourteenth Street, all headed for the same spot; luxury cars appear, stop for a moment at a given corner, then speed out of Overtown as quickly as they came. Barely adolescent boys in XXL white T-shirts keep watch on the sidewalk. "That's the kind of stuff that shreds business away from Overtown," says Harold Meadows, owner of Two Guys Restaurant on NW Third Avenue. "It looks real bad. It keeps people away."
The murders have received little attention in the local media. A search of the Internet and of Miami Herald archives shows almost no mention of the Overtown homicides, except for the unsolved murder of a young white nightclub employee named R.J. Lockwood who had lived in Overtown for just a month (chronicled in the Herald and in New Times: "Hardcore and Bleeding," May 20, 2004). The other victims have been almost uniformly black males, and if their deaths showed up in the local papers at all, they were summed up in a formulaic and brief fashion: "Police are searching for the killers of [Larry McCollum, Brian Spells, Delvin Howard -- the list goes on], who was gunned down in Overtown. No one witnessed the shooting, but several bystanders said they saw [insert number] young men in a [insert vehicle] fleeing the scene."
A similar blurb in the Miami Herald was the last the public heard regarding the death of 21-year-old Eric Tyrone Leuned, shot down on NW 13th Street in August. Malcolm Anwar Wiliams, a 27-year-old with a lengthy rap sheet, was charged with the crime a week later. Both men had been charged with drug-related (and other) crimes in the past, and both, like many casualties of Overtown's drug wars, are young black men. "Most of what's happening out on these streets is fratricide, brother killing brother," says Gerald Muhammad, who has owned Gerald's Graphics and Printing in Overtown for nine years. "In the end, it takes a toll on the community at large."
Most other crime categories, including assault, sex offenses, and robbery, showed improvement from last year. For those not involved in the drug trade, Overtown may actually be getting safer, says Meeks. But reducing the carnage caused by warring drug dealers requires more police on the street.
"Homicide is a crime of opportunity, and the only way to prevent it is through high visibility," Meeks adds. "With all the hot spots we have in Overtown, we can only be so many places." Meeks's crew consists of ten officers on the street in Overtown during the day and five at night.
Some Overtown residents and business owners echo Meeks's observations. "We hardly ever see the police," says one business owner who is understandably reluctant to have his name or the name of his business published. Two other business owners and two residents point to communication problems with the cops who patrol Overtown. "There is absolutely no back and forth between police and residents," says one. "They don't want to be around here. And when they are, they're usually sitting in their car with the windows rolled up."
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It wasn't always that way. Two men who have spent years trying to fend off the drug dealers who use their sidewalks as a sales floor (and in the case of one of the men, his building as a drug drop) say one police officer who used to patrol Overtown did spend time getting to know the people who lived there.
"Buhrmaster knew everybody," recalls one of the men. "He talked to everybody, he actually got up out of his car, and that's why he knew what was going on around here." Lt. John Buhrmaster, whose time patrolling the neighborhood coincided with a decrease in homicides, now oversees the detectives investigating the murders in Overtown. His detectives have an impressive clearance rate -- eight of the homicide cases they've investigated in Overtown in 2004 have been closed; seven of them were drug-related. (Total arrests, for all crimes, during the January-November period have risen sharply, from 2498 last year to 3210 this year.)
The residents who talked to New Times say they hope Buhrmaster will be considered as a possible replacement for Meeks, who is retiring in January. Miami police spokesman Bill Schwartz says Meeks's successor hasn't been picked yet, but he would not comment on likely candidates.
Jeffery Allen, the elusive commissioner of Miami's District 5, which encompasses Overtown, did not return phone calls seeking comment.