A dispatcher's call crackles over the radio: Shop owner threatened, suspect is armed, location is one-seven and six-nine. Miami police officer RRonni Harris steps on the gas and zooms through the darkness toward the scene, which translates from police argot as NW Seventeenth Avenue and 69th Street.
Harris knows that such incidents can quickly escalate to deadly violence. In her patrol area -- the predominantly black neighborhood known as Model City, which stretches from State Road 112 to 79th Street and from NW Second to NW Seventeenth avenues -- store owners often keep guns for protection. Any confrontation in which both parties have weapons is going to be extremely dangerous.
She and another officer arrive simultaneously at George's Food Land market, but there are no overt signs of trouble. A few people are standing near the store's entrance, casually talking. After a quick look around, Harris sees that no one appears to be frightened, and no one seems menacing. She parks her car and heads for the front door, but the owner intercepts her before she enters. "He already left," he snarls. "I couldn't leave my store while he was here. But now he's already gone. It takes you so long -- I've got to take care of myself."
Harris asks for a description of the suspect but the irritated owner won't cooperate: "After it's all over the police come and ask what he looks like. Why didn't you come and see what he looks like?"
The shop owner's animosity doesn't surprise Harris. She is often berated, upbraided, lied to, and threatened. Hostility follows her everywhere -- when she stops at corners, when she interviews drug suspects, even when she speaks with crime victims. "People see it as, 'I pick up the phone and dial 911 -- if it's an emergency, I expect the police to be here now,'" Harris says. Callers, of course, have no way of knowing whether the patrol squad might be short-staffed that night, or whether radio dispatchers are overwhelmed with crime reports at that moment. "As soon as you get there," Harris explains, "they are already agitated because of their problem, and agitated because you're late getting there. You get screamed at, you get yelled at. You just say, 'Sorry sir.'"
In Model City and other black neighborhoods, the enmity between residents and police -- even black officers like Harris -- has historical roots dating back at least to the fearsome riots of 1980, which were sparked by the acquittal of four white policemen charged with brutally murdering Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old black insurance agent. In an effort to reduce the antipathy, Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw has assigned a high priority to hiring and promoting minority officers. Today the 1027-member force is 60 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. Warshaw has also emphasized a technique known as community policing, in which officers are encouraged to become visible allies of the residents in their patrol areas. "In the past," says the chief, "if you had asked most police officers where they worked, they would give you a number, a zone. Now they give you a neighborhood."
One example of Warshaw's efforts to have the police force more closely mirror the community was his promotion of Brenda Williams to lieutenant and overall supervisor of the officers working in Model City, one of three neighborhoods covered by the staff of the city's North District Substation, located at NW Tenth Avenue and 62nd Street. Tough, bluntly outspoken, and devoted to the residents she serves, Williams organizes campouts and basketball games for kids at the same time she schedules raids to harass or arrest some of their brothers, uncles, or fathers. Her motivation is drawn from a simple conviction: "Model City is not about rioting, it's not all about drugs; it's about decent, hard-working people who want what people in Coconut Grove want -- peace of mind."
But in the late-night hours, most of those decent, hard-working citizens are asleep. The people RRonni Harris encounters on the street during her shift (from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., known as the C-shift) are often young, rebellious, and suspicious of any authority. Too many of them are also violent. Last year two-thirds of the city's 128 murders occurred in Model City and Little Haiti, the neighborhood directly east of Harris's patrol area. Half of the city's assaults and 46 percent of the rapes occurred in those two neighborhoods as well.
Five-year-old Rickia Issac was walking home from the Martin Luther King Day parade in January when she was killed by a stray bullet at NW Nineteenth Avenue and 61st Street -- just ten blocks from the northern substation. Earlier that month, during Harris's shift, Ofcr. Ricky Taylor was shot in the head while sitting in his patrol car. "It so happens I was off," Harris recalls. "It was a trauma. It still frightens me when I go down there. It was between Thirteenth and Fourteenth on 61st Street. It's so dark because they keep shooting out the street lights."
Since this past February, the tension between police and neighborhood residents has perceptibly heightened as patrol officers like Harris implement Chief Warshaw's ambitious twenty-point program designed to take guns off the street. The police have raided bars to look for guns and to enforce state liquor laws. They have set up roadblocks to ticket for traffic infractions and search for contraband. And they have staged high-visibility "sweeps" to seize illegal weapons and drugs from street-corner dealers.
The 31-year-old Harris, tall and slender as a runway model, hardly looks sturdy enough to carry a hefty 40-caliber Glock pistol and wear a heavy bulletproof vest -- much less to engage in combat with local bad guys. But in fact she relishes in-your-face encounters with the criminal element, despite the risks. "If you've noticed," she says, "I'm the only female who responds to active calls."
Roll call at the North District Substation. Harris glides into a seat behind a long white table as Sgt. Darlene Cordero, who supervises Model City's C-shift patrol team, stands at a small podium at the front of a conference room. She discusses a planned sweep of a street corner notorious for its drug activity, and runs through other business and assignments. "Also if you get a chance, hit 79th Street," she concludes. "Residents are complaining again about the prostitutes. Some of those ladies are men," Cordero adds, eliciting chuckles.
Harris walks to squad car number 5890, a 1992 Chevrolet Caprice. Inside she examines her long, coral-colored nails and runs her hands down both sides of her hair, which she has dyed auburn and straightened into a neat pageboy reaching just to the bottom of her ears. She then places her notebook on the padded black box between the front seats. From her rearview mirror hang two tiny, silver replicas of handcuffs and a Tweety Bird Christmas tree ornament. The dashboard, seats, and carpets are spotless. She picks up the notebook and sets it down again, placing it exactly perpendicular to the top of the black box. She is exceedingly tidy.
After graduating from Norland Senior High, Harris landed a job with the Sports Authority sporting-goods chain and worked her way up to middle management. In the process she attended about two years of college. A transfer to Tampa left her terribly homesick, so she returned to Miami and got a job with the police department as a public service aide. She worked out of the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, supervised by a police officer. One night while on patrol in the so-called black Grove, she and her supervisor stopped to question a suspected drug dealer who was riding a bicycle. "We pulled up and the guy on the bike got off and started running," Harris recalls. "The officer got out and started running behind him, through an alleyway. He left me in the passenger side of the car, and I said, 'Oh, no. Now what do I do?' So I started the car and took off after him. The supervisor told me I ought to be a police officer because I was aggressive. So I went to the academy."
At her first-ever target practice, she toted up a perfect score. "The guys kept asking me, 'Are you sure you never shot a gun before?'" After graduating from the School of Justice and Safety Administration at Miami-Dade Community College, she completed her eighteen-month probation at the Wynwood/ Edgewater NET office. Six months ago, when the department gave officers an opportunity to bid for the assignments they wanted, she chose the night shift so she could spend more time with her three young children; a standard ten-hour day shift left her too few daylight hours to share with them. She also preferred to work in Model City. (Model City is part of a larger area commonly called Liberty City, which extends beyond Miami's city limits into unincorporated Dade County.) "A lot of officers who don't work here don't want to -- they just think it's too dangerous. But after they're here for a while they like it. I like it because you see a lot of action."
Her first bit of action on this night, however, doesn't involve a criminal -- at least not a human criminal. A fierce dog has stationed itself outside a resident's home, and she gets the assignment. "I'm an animal person," says Harris, whose boyfriend of five years operates a pet shop, "but I don't know what I can do about a mean dog."
After meeting the woman who called, and using her flashlight to see that the growling dog is baring its fangs, Harris decides to wait for Metro-Dade Animal Control officers. More than an hour passes before they arrive, and ultimately they are unable to catch the canine. Harris takes notes as the forlorn and frightened woman watches helplessly from behind her screen door. Elapsed time: two hours.
A quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of immaculately kept single-family homes stretches from State Road 112 north to 67th Street and from NW Seventh Avenue west to Twelfth Avenue. This is one of the areas Lt. Brenda Williams has in mind when she speaks of decent, hard-working Model City residents. Harris's grandparents once lived in the community; as children she and her brother spent many weekends at the bungalow her grandfather built.
West of busy Twelfth Avenue, however, the environment changes. Apartment buildings, many of them poorly maintained, begin to appear among the houses. And the houses themselves are not so neat and clean. Vacant lots, overgrown with weeds, are a common sight. Even the foliage seems to suffer -- it's not nearly as lush as that east of Twelfth. And as any police officer even remotely familiar with the area knows, drug activity flourishes.
Harris drives to a street corner well-known as a hot spot: NW Sixteenth Avenue and 47th Street. Day and night young black men can be found at this intersection, talking, joking, maybe selling some drugs. So disreputable is the corner that many police officers will not venture there alone. It has been the site of several recent drug sweeps, in which a number of officers suddenly converge from different directions, park their squad cars so as to block traffic and create a barrier, then begin frisking and questioning all who have been trapped inside. Individuals found with guns or drugs are arrested; others are charged with misdemeanors such as possession of stolen milk crates.
According to Lieutenant Williams, local residents have demanded that kind of tough law enforcement. RRonni Harris has her own perspective: "Most of the businesses close at eleven. People have got no legitimate purpose for hanging out on the street."
But the drug-sweep tactic infuriates civil rights lawyers, who say it is a blatant violation of constitutional protections against random searches. It has also created a fair amount of ill will among the young men who hang at Sixteenth and 47th.
Despite being alone, Harris confidently approaches the group -- about a dozen youths -- and points out a young man wearing an oversize T-shirt and baggy shorts that reach below his knees. "A confidential informant tells us he's the one who's been selling most of the crack in this neighborhood," she says. "But we can never catch him with the stuff."
Harris motions for him to approach her squad car. He smiles, nods expectantly at Harris, and bounds over. "Would you like to sit down and chat a little while?" she asks him sweetly while opening the back door like a chauffeur.
"Sure, officer," he answers, and sits on the car seat, legs dangling outside.
"How come I always see you standing out here?"
"I'm just visiting my girlfriend," he says sheepishly.
"Your girlfriend? Where does she live?"
"She lives in that house, right over there," he says, pointing vaguely toward a row of homes.
"Shut the door," Harris abruptly commands. "We're going for a little ride."
He shuts the door, but as soon as he realizes he's a prisoner -- the rear doors of squad cars lock automatically -- he protests. But to no avail.
"Where we going, officer?" he asks.
"I'm going to take you home. Where do you live?"
He offers an address as Harris heads over to NW Seventeenth Avenue, where she drives one block then circles back and repeats the circuit.
"Wait a minute, officer!" he cries. "I know my rights. You can't put me in jail!"
"Nobody's taking you anywhere. We're just going to ride around here for a few minutes," Harris says.
"I know my Fourteenth Amendment rights," he repeats, accurately citing the law that prohibits the government from denying an individual life, liberty, or property without due process.
Harris radios for two other officers to join her and then pulls into an abandoned gas station. A buddy, Ofcr. Karen Cooper, arrives first and gets out of her squad car. Harris also steps out, opens her back door, and pulls out her young suspect. She cursorily pats down his pockets, thighs, and calves.
"I'll write down my name and give it to you!" Harris angrily shouts back. Officer Ricardo John, Jr., pulls up, parks his car in front of Harris's, and frisks her captive once again, checking his pockets and trousers more thoroughly. John, who stands more than six feet tall and weighs at least 200 pounds, transferred to Model City from the central district a year ago after hearing a resident complain in Spanish about his race (he is black), assuming he couldn't understand the language.
In contrast to his intimidating size, John's demeanor is not threatening -- he talks quietly, soothingly, and soon Harris's charge calms down.
Florida's stop-and-frisk law gives police broad latitude to search someone for guns or drugs. Officers who encounter individuals in "circumstances which reasonably indicate" that a crime is taking place can temporarily detain them to determine their identity. Officers who believe their lives are threatened can search a suspect "only to the extent necessary" to find a weapon. Though the courts are constantly redefining the statute, officers can pretty much use their discretion in determining when to perform a superficial search.
The law is more explicit, however, about holding someone against his will: "No person should be temporarily detained longer than is necessary to effect the purposes of ... ascertaining his identity and the circumstances that led the officer to believe that he had committed, was committing or was about to commit a crime."
"I don't want to go riding around in no police car," Harris's guest protests after noticing that a couple of his friends are watching from a distance. "People going to think I'm a snitch."
When Harris gets his name and radios it in to the station, she's told to contact a Metro-Dade detective. As it happens, the suspect is a snitch of sorts. He's a witness to a murder and is supposed to report to a Metro-Dade detective to provide information. Harris sighs and lets him loose. "I'm going to call that detective and tell him he ought to teach that guy how to respect a police officer," she grumbles. "That's not right, the way he talked to me," she adds, referring to the comment about being a "hired gun for the crackers."
As Ricardo John leaves in response to a call, another police vehicle pulls up and two more black female officers get out. For the next half-hour the four women chitchat and laugh together. When Harris finally returns to her car, she's still steaming about her suspect's insulting remark. "Did you see the way he talked to me?" she says. "He didn't talk to the other officer that way. He just wants to talk to me like that. He thinks he can disrespect me. I hate that. I'm going to call that detective and tell him to talk some sense into that guy. It's not right. He's got to teach him how to behave."
Like Harris, many Model City patrol officers are young, relatively new to the force, and aggressive, says Sgt. Darlene Cordero. In part that's the result of the police department having lost many of its senior staff members last year when the city encouraged veteran employees to retire early as a cost-cutting measure. More rookies were hired at lower salaries, and more young officers were promoted. (Chief Warshaw says that 100 of 148 sergeants were promoted to that rank in one twelve-month period.)
Additionally, the bidding system introduced six months ago allows senior officers to choose the beats they want to work. The Model City neighborhood is among the least popular -- except for young officers like Harris, who are looking for action and experience. That, says Sergeant Cordero, can sometimes lead to problems. "You've kind of got to slow them down," she explains. "Some of them are kind of cocky. They just need structure."
Not long after Harris arrived in Model City, her superiors imposed some of that structure -- they separated her from her friend and patrol partner Karen Cooper. Recalls Harris: "They said, 'You two are always getting in trouble when you're together.' Seems like every time we were together, we ended up on a chase." Today Harris rides three nights a week with Ofcr. Michael Braddy, whose eight years on the force make him something of an old pro in terms of experience.
Braddy, who is black, grew up in Model City and knows many people by name or appearance. "I've sent some of my school buddies to jail," he acknowledges. Awkward as that might seem, Braddy nonetheless maintains excellent relations among the residents in his patrol area, a rapport that frequently prompts witnesses to reveal to him potentially incriminating and often dangerous information. "I've been to a lot of calls," he recounts, "where people say, 'Let me tell you something in private.'"
From Braddy's perspective, the crime in Model City can be explained to a significant degree in economic terms. Some 44 percent of the neighborhood's 25,000 people live in poverty; the city's overall rate is about 32 percent. The unemployment rate is 16 percent; the city's is 7.7 percent. While Braddy does not believe that these demoralizing statistics in any way justify criminal behavior, he does argue that "some of these people on the streets just want jobs."
Off-duty, Braddy has become a friend to Harris, her boyfriend, and her three children. On patrol he is a mentor and, in some ways, a protector. For example, after Harris complained to him about the suspected drug dealer's insulting remark, Braddy drove to NW Sixteenth Avenue and 47th Street on his own and instructed the young man in the proper way to address a police officer.
Sgt. Darlene Cordero worked two years on patrol and three years in administration -- in the property room and for the chief's office -- before taking the sergeant's exam three years ago. Her first assignment as a ranking officer: supervising the C-shift patrol unit in Model City. She manages up to eleven officers per night as well as patrolling the streets on her own. At age 33 Cordero, like many other sergeants, is relatively young and inexperienced for the position she holds. Her ambitions, though, are a match for anyone else's on the force: She wants to be Miami's first black female police chief, and she is plotting her career with that lofty goal in mind -- investigative work next, then the lieutenant's test as soon as she's eligible, and on from there. She's something of a role model for young black officers like Harris, who plans to take the sergeant's exam as soon as rules allow.
Sergeant Cordero has radioed for assistance in dealing with two suspicious men in front of a convenience store. When the dispatcher calls out the address of Partners Grocery Store on NW Thirteenth Avenue and 62nd Street, Harris leaps into action -- siren on, gas pedal to the floor.
By the time she arrives at the store she finds no fewer than eighteen other officers already on the scene. Bright security lights along the store's roof illuminate the scene below, and cast an eerie glow on a mural of murdered gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur that covers one large wall of the market.
In Model City, street corners and stores like Partners Grocery are the sidewalk cafes and tony nightclubs of more affluent Miami neighborhoods, according to officers who work the C-shift. On the sidewalk outside a convenience store a person can enjoy a beer with friends without the need for fancy clothes, paying a cover charge, or buying a three-course dinner. And for many, the sidewalk is preferable to Model City's few bars, none of which, Harris says, is safe.
The stores also serve as informal social centers: Mothers bring their children when they pick up diapers; children buy their first cigarettes; teenagers their first beers. Neighborhood comedians practice their routines before a friendly audience. With the exception of church on Sunday, the corner store may be the most established and comfortable meeting place in the neighborhood.
But police officers also know them to be flash points for crime and violence. Major drug markets often develop in vacant lots near the stores or in the alleys behind them. A lone officer questioning a suspect in such a setting risks the possibility of confrontation. "Friday and Saturday nights are the worst," says Harris. "Before you know it, things can happen and you can have a large crowd developing."
At Partners Grocery Harris elbows her way toward the center of the crowd, where Cordero and Ofcr. Lester Cole appear to be engaged in some sort of confrontation with unseen suspects. "You want to fuck with me?!" Cole screams, the veins in his temples pumping. He dramatically shakes an index finger. "I'll show you who you're fucking with!"
Cordero also looks irate, her dark eyes flashing in the glare of the overhead lights. But Harris isn't yet close enough to see the suspects whose behavior led to this chaotic scene. Cole, however, is clearly visible. He's thick and broad-shouldered, with a barrel chest and pumped biceps that bulge under the short sleeves of his uniform. One of the few Anglo officers in Model City, his bulk and his shaved head give him a distinctly menacing appearance. "You don't know who you're fucking with!" he shouts again before stomping away.
Now Harris can see the offenders. One is a slightly built teenager slumped on a bus-stop bench. The other is equally young and scrawny; he sits perched on the back of the bench. Short dreadlocks poke out from their heads. Their eyes are glassy and they blankly stare straight ahead. Apparently they had refused to answer Cordero's questions. Then Cole arrived and began screaming at them. Then more and more and more officers pulled up and surrounded them. Reluctantly, they now decide to cooperate.
"How old are you?" Cordero demands.
"Sixteen," one answers quietly.
"Seventeen," the other adds.
"Do you know we've got a curfew in Miami? You aren't supposed to be out here after midnight. What are you doing here? Where do you live?"
"Around the corner," answers one boy, and he gives his address.
Harris moves in close and plants herself at Cordero's right side, seemingly eager to get involved -- but she says nothing. Suddenly an obese woman in tight-fitting shorts pushes her way through the crowd. A half-dozen teenagers follow her like ducklings after their mother. "I want to know who's been slapping my baby!" she hollers.
"Stand back, ma'am!" Cordero yells.
"Officer, you been slapping my baby and that ain't right!" she insists.
"Nobody's been slapping anybody!" Cordero replies loudly as more teenagers gather to stare at the swarm of police officers.
Cordero directs her attention to a young girl standing next to the mother. "Are you eighteen?" she bellows. Before the girl can answer, Cordero continues: "Then go home! I want all these people out of here, now!" she shrieks.
And with that, the other police officers stop talking, snap to attention, and begin dispersing the crowd.
"It ain't right," the mother says again, shaking her head. "Hon, if these officers hit you, that ain't right, and we goin' to do something about it. Did anyone lay hands on you?"
By now the second boy has slipped away, though Cordero doesn't inquire as to his whereabouts or try to find him. The remaining teen quietly tells his mother that no one has slapped him.
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"At least you told the truth one time," Cordero snaps.
Soon the drama subsides. The police climb back into their squad cars and pull away. The neighbors bicycle and walk off. Cordero returns to her car, the youth to his mother.
Harris resumes her patrol. In the early-morning hours she has one more encounter with the suspected drug dealer who had angered her. She finds him at a convenience store. "You know he just lives on the streets," she says. "The store was closed and we told him to get out of there. But he hadn't moved when we came back around. He had a juvenile with him who had some stuff on him, but we didn't catch him with any drugs."
Still, Harris managed to arrest him. "For loitering and prowling," she says, pleased with herself.