One-stop Cop Shop
In the pantheon of great American empire-builders Nelson Long's name may not immediately spring to mind. Rockefeller had oil. Vanderbilt was master of the railroads. J.P. Morgan ruled steel and financing. The Hearst name became synonymous with the publishing industry. Long, in his own obscure field, was equally unsurpassed. His business was peddling off-duty cops.
Beginning in the 1980s, when he was an officer with the Miami Beach Police Department, Long was known in the film and television industry as the guy who could get all the off-duty police you needed to assure your production would go smoothly on the Beach. Want to block traffic on Washington Avenue? Long's your man. Need a police escort to drive a couple of Winnebagos onto the sand? Long can help you. Shooting a scene with a famous movie star and need crowd control? See Long. And even though he retired from the department in October 1992 following a heart attack, he continued providing his services.
"Nelson was great," coos Beverly Visitacion, a veteran location manager, echoing a common sentiment heard throughout the local production industry. "He was a location manager's dream. You could always count on him to do whatever he said he was going to do, which meant you could get a good night's sleep."
But early this year police officials began to grow suspicious that Long had been operating in violation of departmental administrative rules. And in March the former cop suddenly backed out of the business, leaving behind unanswered questions about his activities. According to sources in the State Attorney's Office and the Miami Beach Police Department, investigators from the SAO and the police department's internal affairs department are probing Long's enterprise and his relationship with the City of Miami Beach.
Off-duty police work is an opportunity available to officers at most police departments in South Florida, and can be a lucrative sideline. (In Miami Beach, the official off-duty rate is twenty dollars per hour per officer.) Sgt. Gary Bergert, supervisor of the Off-Duty Employment Office, estimates that the department receives several hundred requests per month for off-duty officers to stand at the doorways of clubs, grocery stores, banks -- any place that needs a law enforcement boost. Production-related work, Bergert says, accounts for no more than twenty percent of total off-duty business.
City regulations require that all requests for off-duty officers be channeled through the police department's Off-Duty Employment Office. The department then selects officers to work the job -- the assignments are doled out on a rotational basis for fairness. (In the case of long-term jobs, Bergert appoints a coordinator who acts as liaison between the business, the officers, and the Off-Duty Employment Office.) The client, whether it be Publix or Big Time Productions, must pay the department an administrative surcharge (eight dollars per man per shift for a permanent job and fifteen for a one-time event) and pay the off-duty officers directly.
At least that's the way the system should work. But in reality the off-duty program was for many years considerably less efficient. According to Capt. Casey Conwell, commander of the department's Support Services Division, which includes the Off-Duty Employment Office, a supervisor (Sergeant Bergert) was only recently assigned to oversee the office full-time. In addition the office became computerized just a short time ago. "All the coordinators were supposed to send in their records to the off-duty office, but because there was no full-time supervisor checking on these jobs, I cannot vouch that they were all in compliance," Conwell says. As a result, the captain adds, it's possible that some jobs weren't reported and administrative fees weren't paid. "One of the problems you have is who's in charge and who's watching who."
During the 1980s Nelson Long emerged as the main off-duty police coordinator for the production industry. And after retiring from the police force he apparently expanded his enterprise beyond the mere issue of law-enforcement. Besides arranging for cops, production sources say, Long would subcontract traffic barricades from a private firm, and work with the city's parking department to ensure that the right meters were bagged and parking spaces allotted for production vehicles and equipment. "He was able to clear streets in Miami Beach, which is a miracle," location manager Visitacion says. "He had a good rapport with store owners, so he could smooth things over. He always knew the trickiest streets to film on and knew how many police it would take to do it safely. Whenever you dealt with the Beach, you brought Nelson in early."
He was tireless, say several production crew members, and seemed devoted to the industry. "He'd come out in the middle of the night to check on the site," remembers location manager Christina LaBuzetta. "I don't think he ever slept." LaBuzetta also recalls how Long employed a scraggly band of misfits to watch over the reserved parking spaces and to generally provide help. "I don't know if they were drunks or ex-drunks or what, but he'd hire the lowest common denominator," she says. "There was a woman who worked for him who was somewhat retarded, people no one would hire for anything. But he supervised them really well." Yet another location manager remembers how the ever-ready Long always had an extra supply of meter bags and barricades on hand in case of last-minute emergencies.
Several production coordinators who worked directly with Long say they would pay him a lump sum for all the services he provided, and then he would pay the off-duty officers and other subcontractors directly. He would factor in a charge for his own time and expenses, as well, the coordinators say.
But even though Long may have been the production industry's best friend, Miami Beach police officials now regard his legacy a little more circumspectly. Sgt. Gary Bergert says his former colleague was operating with little accountability while on the force and acquired even more autonomy after his retirement. As production companies continued to go directly to Long for off-duty help, Bergert says, Long would contact officers himself, cutting the police department's administration out of the loop.
This scheme operated with the consent of the city manager's office. The city's film and print coordinator, Robert Reboso, who works under the supervision of City Manager Roger Carlton, says he referred production companies to Long if they needed off-duty personnel to comply with the requirements of a city-issue film permit. "It was my understanding that this was being done with the blessing of the police department," Reboso explains. "Everything was going as before [Long's retirement]. I was under the impression that he was doing the paperwork, collecting the administrative fees."
But city documents indicate that this wasn't happening. For example, records in the city manager's office reveal that during the first three months of 1994 Reboso put Long in charge of coordinating police services for at least 40 productions in Miami Beach. Among those that occurred in January -- fifteen in all -- only seven were recorded with the Off-Duty Employment Office, and administrative fees were collected for just two. In addition to the possibility that Long failed to report the whereabouts of off-duty officers -- a departmental policy -- these discrepancies may also be attributed to inefficient record-keeping and last-second alterations in production schedules. "I met Nelson Long personally twice," Captain Conwell says. "I was assured by Nelson Long that he was working with [the Off-Duty Employment Office] and that everything was properly documented."
Conwell explains that the department wants to know where its off-duty officers are at all times for insurance-liability purposes and in order to confirm whether an administrative fee had been paid for particular jobs. Longstanding police department rules prohibit a police officer from working an off-duty job without the approval and knowledge of the Off-Duty Employment Office. If he does, he can be subject to disciplinary action and risks losing his ability to work off-duty. (Conwell says he knows of no police officer who was disciplined for working directly for Long.)
Long's enterprise crumbled this past March when Bergert and another police official met with the off-duty fixer and told him he wasn't allowed to employ off-duty officers without the department's prior consent. The officers also met with film coordinator Reboso and clarified the city's policies, instructing him to refer all requests for off-duty officers directly to the police department instead of through unauthorized private firms or individuals such as Long. According to police officials and Reboso, Long promptly extracted himself from the production industry. (He was unreachable for comment regarding this story.)
"I think he was hoping the industry would collapse without him," says one location manager. "And people in the business were losing a lot of sleep during the transition." But the off-duty system didn't fall apart in Long's absence; industry officials say the police department has ably taken up the task. "It's almost as if Nelson is still here," the location manager says. With two ongoing investigations Long's legacy will live for at least a little while longer.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.