Last week, dozens of residents logged into a virtual meeting of the county commission to oppose more funding for Miami-Dade's police force. With budget season in full swing, commissioners will vote on the county's proposed $9 billion spending plan next Thursday, September 17.
But at a meeting of the county's Public Safety and Rehabilitation Committee on Wednesday, the five commissioners who sit on the committee approved a $5.24 million police expenditure without so much as a discussion. No residents spoke at that meeting, which seemed to please committee chairman Joe A. Martinez.
"Having no speakers — that's always a good start to the day," joked Martinez, a former Miami-Dade police officer. (At last week's budget meeting, County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez expressed similar disdain for members of the public, claiming that some remarks from residents sounded "scripted.")
The $5.24 million is tied to a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, known informally as the COPS program. Earlier this summer, the Miami-Dade Police Department was awarded $5.25 million to hire 42 new officers. A letter from the DOJ says the grant pays up to 75 percent of the officers' salaries and benefits for three years.
But the influx of federal cash comes with a catch: The county must spend $5.24 million of its own money as a local match.
A memo about the grant from Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp says the new officers "will be deployed strategically throughout the County in areas identified as having high incidents of gun violence." A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Police Department tells New Times the cops will patrol community gathering spots, including parks, and participate in community and youth programs.
The local money would come from the county's general fund and would be spread out over the three years. As the Miami Herald noted last week, about 45 percent of the county's general fund is earmarked for police and jail services in 2021, although the $5.24 million price tag of the grant match represents a fraction of the police department's $781 million total budget.
The grant comes at a politically charged time, as progressive activists are fighting to defund police departments and redirect the money to social services.
While local budgets have come under the closest scrutiny, the federal COPS program has received attention this summer as well.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has touted in campaign materials that he "spearheaded" the program, which was part of the 1994 crime bill. And he continues to support the initiative — a position that has led to criticism from more progressive wings of the party. Those voices include The End of Policing author Alex S. Vitale, who suggested in a recent column for The Nation that "if federal lawmakers are serious about reining in abusive policing...they can start by eliminating the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) Office."
The debate is playing out on a local level, too: Leaders in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Everett, Washington, recently debated whether to reject federal COPS awards in the face of pressure from residents. (Both cities ultimately voted to use the grant to hire more cops.)
In Miami-Dade County, the federal grant and the local match generated no discussion from members of the public safety committee, which includes Commissioners Joe A. Martinez, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Daniella Levine Cava, Sally A. Heyman, and Rebeca Sosa.
At the same meeting, Sosa quibbled about a much smaller $250,000 expenditure that would be used to help residents with suspended licenses get their driving privileges back.
Sosa balked at the cost, saying, "We have to be very careful about spending taxpayers' dollars at this time."
In a phone interview with New Times after the meeting, she clarified that she supports the goal of the initiative, which is a pet project of Commissioner Eileen Higgins. But Sosa says she would prefer that the $250,000 go toward paying drivers' suspension fines and fees rather than for a consultant, as the agenda item had proposed.
Although the COPS grant match would cost 20 times more than the drivers' license program, Sosa says hiring more police officers is a "direct service" to taxpayers.
"In this case, you're talking direct services to the residents who pay taxes," she says. "When you use their money for public works, for water assistance, for police, for fire, it's to create safety. In this [other] case, it was to pay a consultant."
Levine Cava, a left-leaning commissioner who is running to succeed Giménez as county mayor, tells New Times she supports the federal grant because it's designated for community policing.
"[Programs] that make police develop stronger relationships with children and families in the community — those are all positive things that help to reduce crime in a positive way and not a punitive way," she says.
Nevertheless, advocacy groups say the county could use the $5.24 million to address other community needs. In a statement to New Times, the Miami Dream Defenders suggests the funds could be used to build a sobering center, expand a local jail diversion program, establish a task force that examines alternatives to incarceration, or create an emergency rent-relief fund.
"We don't think there's any reasonable justification to keep increasing one of the largest municipal police budgets in the United States, especially in a year like this," the group's statement says.
Levine Cava says hiring more officers with the federal grant doesn't mean the county can't also hire more social workers.
"We would love to see more social workers, youth counselors, and mental-health workers, but this is sort of an opportunity that comes along to do this work on the police side," Levine Cava says. "But we're going to be pushing very hard to have also civilian positions that do this kind of work in the community as well."
The decision about the federal grant will next go to the full board of county commissioners on October 6.
For now, the cost of the local match is not included in the Miami-Dade Police Department's budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. A spokesperson says the agency does not plan to bring the 42 new officers on board until late 2021, which is when the local money would need to be set aside.
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