Many moons ago, in the year 2017, a Facebook group called Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness began surveilling the streets of South Beach and collecting data on the city's "frequent fliers" — people arrested multiple times by the Miami Beach Police Department.
Members of the group, which boasted 1,500 followers, saw themselves as crime-fighting vigilantes with a mission to crack down on obnoxious or illegal behavior by people who were, by and large, Black or homeless. While the Facebook group got a warm reception from police at first, then-Chief Daniel Oates cut ties in 2019 after the vigilantes were accused of accidentally exposing an undercover operation.
Despite the failed experiment, Miami Beach residents with a hankering for street justice will soon have a new avenue for working with police. In July, city commissioners voted to instate a so-called Citizens Volunteer Patrol that would essentially deputize regular folks to stake out their neighborhoods and report suspicious behavior. The initiative was championed by Commissioner Steven Meiner, an attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who was elected last year after running on a platform of law and order.
"I think we can really utilize our motivated citizens, civic-minded citizens," Meiner said at the July 29 meeting. "Many outstanding individuals have told me they'd be interested in joining or applying for this program."
Per the meeting discussion, members of the citizens patrol will be vetted and trained by the Miami Beach Police Department, which has given its blessing. The volunteers will wear uniforms but won't be armed or have arresting powers.
Meiner declined to speak with New Times but said in an emailed statement that the volunteer patrol "puts more eyes and ears on the street and will be an important cost-effective crime prevention tool in our neighborhoods."
A number of residents have expressed support for the idea on social media, but others are skeptical.
"Trayvon Martin would be alive if it weren't for neighborhood watch/vigilantes," Ariana Reguant, a cultural anthropologist who has long been critical of discriminatory practices by the city, replied on a Facebook post by Meiner.
At least three commenters said the idea reminded them of Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood groups established by Fidel Castro to keep tabs on dissident activities.
"Reminds me of the Cuba Neighborhood Militia Brigades!!" one man posted. "This HAS to be a joke!!!"
Another resident called the citizens patrol "a Karen squad."
David Harleston, a Black resident of Miami Beach, tells New Times he worries about racial profiling by members of the new patrol group.
"Black citizens across the country, and particularly in Florida, are being publicly harassed, threatened, assaulted and even killed by racist members of their communities who eagerly call police to report a disturbance when they see us in places they've decided we don't belong," he says.
As a member of several Miami Beach Facebook groups where racist stereotyping is prevalent, Harleston says it's easy to see how power could end up in the wrong hands.
"The prospect of the commission deputizing that community is terrifying," he says.
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For now, details about the vetting process, training protocols, and guidelines for the citizens patrol remain skimpy. A press release from the city says only that the volunteers will be "trained to report incidents such as vandalism, graffiti, and parking violations" and "certain quality of life issues."
In a statement to New Times, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says the initiative "seems to raise more concerns than solutions."
"City commissioners should instead address the calls for police accountability, the reevaluation of police funding, measures to limit use of force, and community oversight of the police rather than bestowing that responsibility on a volunteer patrol," the ACLU says. "Deputizing citizens in a volunteer patrol is likely to increase racial profiling. It is a terrible, dangerous idea."
Meiner said at the July commission meeting that the city has budgeted $26,000 for the volunteer group in 2021. The funds will be used to purchase uniforms, police radios, and possibly a golf cart. The brigade will not commence its patrols until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city's press release.