I arrived in Miami Beach in 2014, drawn to the challenge of policing the most iconic and dynamic entertainment city in the country. My last stop as a chief. I had landed well. Great, hard-working cops. A talented city management team. A supportive community.
Within three weeks, I learned my first hard lesson about the true sordidness of South Beach, the big-money Ocean Drive proprietors and how they have their hooks into cops and elected officials. A cop working “off duty” — paid to do security in uniform for two of the biggest nightclubs — was caught on video being plied by bartenders with drink after drink in both clubs, then staggering drunk on the street, interacting with patrons and grabbing recklessly at his handgun.
Another police scandal. A colossal embarrassment. Welcome to South Beach, where nothing is at it seems, and the late-night party trumps everything, including the honor and integrity of MBPD.
Our cops tried their best during my five years. We knocked down major crime by double digits. Yet we never “fixed” the entertainment district. Homicides and assaults were much too frequent. Gun-toting gangsters from Brooklyn, Chicago and elsewhere “vacationed” here, playing out vendettas on our turf. Cops were routinely assaulted. One was almost killed, dragged by a speeding car. As any South Beach resident knows — and I was one — there were too many muggings, beatings, murders and non-fatal shootings. Fights, stampedes and other brand-damaging videos were regularly tweeted out to the world.
So, we’ve come to yet another ballot question about what to do. Candidates are throwing out the usual buzzwords: “Zero tolerance;” more “community policing;” more “off-duty cops.”
First, MBPD is as sophisticated in its partnerships with the community as any police department. It does “community policing” just fine, thank you. But that doesn’t stop bad guys drawn to the nightlife of Ocean Drive from shooting one another or stop predators intent on rolling drunk tourists coming out of nightclubs at 4 a.m.
Second, Miami-Dade Police Director Freddie Ramirez skillfully addressed the zero-tolerance issue at a recent City Commission meeting. Modern America and the Miami-Dade criminal justice system don’t support zero tolerance. Get real. In the current national climate, prosecutors don’t pursue minor crimes with the vigor they should. More important, Miami-Dade judges don’t put people in jail for these offenses, either. Voters must use the democratic process to fix this. Expecting MBPD to use zero tolerance to make all the bad behavior magically go away is pure fantasy.
Third, stop with the noise about “off-duty cops.” In my entire time in Miami Beach, I could never find enough cops willing to work on Ocean Drive on their days off. If you had the wisdom and experience of a cop who has finally earned the seniority to have Friday or Saturday night off, would you volunteer to work an extra shift on Ocean Drive until 5 a.m.?
South Beach needs to change its business model. The worst elements of today’s crowd typically arrive at 11 p.m. or later — to revel in the open-air cabaret and nightclub craziness. Close the doors. End the cabaret. Insist on indoor entertainment only. End it all at 2 a.m. Do this, and these determined all-night “partyers” will simply stop coming. Sanity will return.
There is another option that will help, but only modestly. Put a cop on every corner of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue from Fifth to 15th streets from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. The city needs at least 130 more cops to do this. It will cost almost $20 million a year. And be patient. It will take two years to hire and train them. Do taxpayers want to pay for that?
The city cannot arrest or community police its way out of the South Beach nightmare. Close down the open-air, all-night party and, in time, a different, more civil crowd will start to come — one interested in calmer entertainment and in getting home at a reasonable hour. The tenor of South Beach will finally soften and change.
Once again, the monied interests of Ocean Drive are spending a fortune to sway this vote. Their argument: The patrons who pack their cramped cabarets are holier than thou. The out-of-control behavior on the street is exclusively the city’s fault. Baloney.
I love Miami Beach, especially its hard-working, but exhausted, cops. It’s time for smart change. Pass the 2 a.m. ballot measure. It’s time to end the madness and make South Beach great again.
Daniel Oates was chief of the Miami Beach Police Department from 2014-2019. He previously served as a chief in Michigan and Colorado following a 21-year career in the New York City Police Department.