Excess Baggage

This is not a joke: The City of Miami Beach has intentionally reduced the number of parking spaces available on weekends. Toward midnight on Friday and Saturday, at about the same time that half the population of South Florida is crossing the causeways for some unabashed frivolity, city workers assiduously slip no-parking bags over the three dozen meters that line the east side of Washington Avenue between Fourteenth and Sixteenth streets.

A cold-hearted test of human tolerance? An attempt to get more people to park in the city's new municipal garage? A sadistic prank?

Actually, city officials say, they are making parking a little more difficult in order to make the sidewalks a lot safer.

"That has been an area where we've experienced a large number of people involved in gangs," explains Det. Al Boza, a Miami Beach Police Department spokesman. "One of the major tools of their activities is the car, and they've used their cars as shields for what appear to be drug transactions." According to Boza, dealers had been plying their wares behind or between the cars parked along Washington Avenue, or inside them. "Officers were having a helluva time," he adds.

The meter bagging commenced early this summer in response to complaints lodged with police by an association of Washington Avenue merchants who had seen a growing number of young people loitering in the area on weekend nights. "There was a lot of unruly activity on the street that made customers feel threatened or uncomfortable," explains Jeff Bechdel, promotions/events manager of the Washington Avenue Association, whose members own businesses or properties along the avenue from Fifth to Sixteenth streets. (Members pay a special tax that funds the association, which uses the money to pay for extra sanitation and off-duty police security, as well as landscaping and promotion.)

The grumbling coincided with a wee-hours multiple shooting on the 1400 block of Washington Avenue that left one person dead and four injured. A gang fight, concluded police (who promptly augmented their patrols along the busy corridor), prompted a "zero tolerance" approach to lawbreakers; police asked the parking department to bag a few meters.

The benefit of the late-night bagging has gone beyond improved surveillance. It also opened up space for officers to pull cars over for the traffic checks that have increased with the department's newly adopted strict policy. In fact, the police themselves acknowledge that the bagging will probably do a lot more to aid in traffic stops than it will to curb gang-related activity, which is widespread and fluid in Miami Beach.

South Beach has been a magnet for gang activity for several years, according to Sgt. Andres Soto, who was in charge of the department's juvenile gang unit until earlier this year. "It started to increase about the same time the Beach started booming," Soto recalls. "At first it was concentrated on Ocean Drive, then it started moving to Washington Avenue." The police department began keeping better track of gangs -- and differentiating gang-related activities from other youthful hooliganism -- by the formation of the gang unit a few years ago. Soto and his colleagues now share information with other law enforcement agencies around South Florida. This week the department beefed up its gang task force, from two detectives to one sergeant and four detectives.

Beach police investigators attribute numerous shootings and at least two homicides to gangs, who have also displayed a predilection for robbery and car theft. Though the department has yet to encounter large-scale drug dealing on the part of gangs, officers have seen plenty of what Al Boza calls "nickel-and-dime on the street corner" transactions, including along the now-bagged stretch of Washington Avenue that is home to the popular nightspots Liquid and the Cameo Theatre.

Boza is well aware that bagging a few meters isn't likely to do much more than put a dent in such activity, and that the gesture might simply inspire the perpetrators to move elsewhere. But in concert with the ironhandedness and the expanded Washington Avenue patrol, the gambit appears to have had at least one measurable positive effect: fewer complaints. Jeff Bechdel says Washington Avenue Association members are pleased with the effort so far, even if it is exacerbating their patrons' parking headaches.


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