a 30-Minute Conversation with the New Downtown Police Commander
From a policing perspective, downtown Miami has the lowest crime rates in decades. More than weapons, downtown residents fear crazy motorists, and petty criminals and mentally ill individuals roaming the streets under the camouflage of homelessness.
A neighbor's husband was thus killed right on Flagler Street, Miami’s historic main street. A senseless altercation, a homeless man shoved Tom, the husband’s name, and his life, the life of his loved ones, took a drastic turn to places with no return.
So, this changing downtown, a gentrified neighborhood, welcomes collaboration with law enforcement to identify problems, potentially harmful situations, and solutions. Nothing new, the concept of community policing has been around for some time.
I consulted residents before meeting Antonio Regueira, the new Police Commander. Residents identified criminals hiding behind the homeless, and motorists and faulty signage as the enemies of public safety.
Mr. Regueira looks the part, tall, fit, but affable, even soft-spoken. You get the feeling. however, that he means business, in the ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ kind of way.
We opted to talk while walking around the neighborhood, visiting problematic spots. Many residents would like to see more officers walking the beat, be central figures in the community. Deterrence through police presence. (One study shows the correlation: a 10 percent decrease in police presence resulted in a 2.5 percent increase in crime.)
We stop next to a grocery store that sells beer by the can.
Downtown NEWS: Is it illegal to drink here on the sidewalk?
Commander Regueira: Yes, it is.
DN: The property manager at the Loft 2 reports that a man, in his 20s, usually with an acolyte, drinks regularly here and harasses pedestrians, especially women. Every time a woman goes by, he harasses her with lewd language and gestures. Or aggressively he demands money from men.
CR: I need specific information. If this occurs every day, at what time? Is it on weekends? That way I can put my resources here to make sure we make contact with that individual. If the property manager can provide us with that information, we can definitely increase our presence in the area.
We cross 2nd Avenue to 7-Eleven, a magnet for vagrancy and illicit activity, according to resident Jorge Sanchez.
CR: Our officers come here every single day. All shifts. I see it on the reports the officers make. They come not only to this store, but the one on Miami Avenue and Flagler, and all the CVSs. They have to get out of their vehicle, and make contact with the manager, exchange information, whether someone has been harassing… There is a unit assigned to patrol specific places. They start at Bayfront Park, the first thing they do every morning for half an hour or one hour. Once they finish there, this is their next detail.
DN: It is a violation to drink within 400 feet of the establishment selling alcohol, yet residents see people drinking all the time, and no enforcement.
A vagrant approaches — head down looking for cigarette butts. His intention is to demand money from us, but looking up he reconsiders and walks away.
CR: If we catch people drinking, they have a problem. But we actually have to see it. We can not go by what anyone says. If the officer doesn’t see them grab that beer and drink it, then he can’t charge them. We know what they are doing, but the law says they have to be caught doing it. And then it becomes a little technical, too. If they have a cover we don’t know what they are drinking. It can be a soda or water.
DN: How about the stores selling liquor?
CR: We have no way to control that. We have the same issue with the liquor store on Third Avenue, which sells the little airplane liquor bottles. We can’t stop them from having that type of business. Now, if they were selling drugs out here, committing a felony, then we can do a nuisance abetment kind of thing against the business itself.
For those unfamiliar, Pottinger was a protection for the homeless population that the courts imposed 20 years ago. The Pottinger Consent Decree was named after the attorney who first brought the case to the courts. Basically, it mandated the police to let the homeless live in peace on the streets, allowing life-sustaining activities like urinating and defecating anywhere, which many residents denounced as serious public health threats.
Last month, Judge Federico Moreno terminated it, opining that downtown had become a residential neighborhood, with an increased number of families and children. On the other hand, after twenty years of Pottinger, the police has a different attitude — more respectful, better educated about homelessness. And resources have also multiplied, there are more shelters, more help available.
DN: Now that some of those protections have been terminated, what are the implications for law enforcement?
CR: There will be a departmental directive coming up soon regarding Pottinger. For now, we have to continue observing it, but if an individual is committing a crime, homeless or not, if it is not a life-sustaining misdemeanor, he’s going to jail.”
Three or four homeless people obstruct the sidewalk up the street, covered in heavy blankets. It’s 8:15 am. A shirt hangs to dry from a fence separating the sidewalk and the empty parking lot Miami Dade College keeps for some logic defying reason. It attracts all kinds of characters to take possession of the sidewalk.
CR (extending a measuring glance): They are not blocking the entire sidewalk, if they allow enough space for pedestrians to walk by, then it is difficult for us to intervene.
DN: Residents from buildings around point out that whenever they walk their dogs the same half a dozen men will be found drinking on 2nd Avenue.
CR: If we catch them drinking, or harassing pedestrians, we will take them. They are going to get arrested or something is going to happen.
A Jurisdictional Hopscotch
Another problematic spot is the entrance to the Metromover.
DN: Do you have jurisdiction over the Metromover?
CR: The ground yes, but not the top. If they are here, on the ground, we can take care of it, but once they get to the stairs it’s Miami-Dade.
If an individual commits a crime, once he reaches those stairs off the ground, he can, technically, wave City of Miami police officers good-bye. In practice, it’s a different story. Commander Regueira stresses, he doesn't intend to have conflicts with Miami-Dade, but his officers will chase a criminal and hold him/her until the Miami-Dade police arrive. The same thing happens if a crime is committed in the Public Library, around a Court House, places outside their jurisdiction.
Traffic Violations and Broken Signs
The list of problems residents reported is long. A tree covering a sign. Non-working street lights. The lack of walk/don’t walk signs along Biscayne Boulevard. The dangerous allotment of 12 seconds to cross it. Traffic lights not timed properly to permit a smooth flow of traffic.
Another issue, as 900 Biscayne resident Mark Kirby reported: “Don’t Block the Grid policy as they have in NYC and enforce it by assertively ticketing violators. The traffic tie-ups at every major intersection along Biscayne and Second Ave used to be only at rush hour and now occurs all day long.” On the other side of town, the Epic’s property manager also pointed out that “many drivers block the box creating a mess in all adjacent intersections.”
DN: Signage is not a policing issue…
CR: It falls mostly within the jurisdiction of the DOT and Miami-Dade.
DN: But Jessica Boudreaux, a Park West resident, did express one concern related to enforcement: “There is a major issue of running the red light from the northbound lane of Biscayne crossing NE 11 St. It also happens to be a major crosswalk for those of us who live here and are walking our dogs (or kids) to the park. A hidden police presence there on any given weekday afternoon issuing tickets to all who do this would be great.”
CR: That is a time-specific comment. We can certainly deploy some resources. I can send an officer there. And we can report how many tickets were given or none. I truly appreciate the concern citizens show, but sometimes we respond to complaints and nothing happens. I have spent three hours with a neighbor, and no one took the red light.
DN: Can residents around NE 11th Street get a report of enforcement activity in the area?
We have covered plenty. Commander Regueira asks me to shoot him an email to remind him of all the issues discussed. I do, a couple of days later, emphasizing blocking intersections that not only exacerbate traffic bottlenecks but are dangerous to pedestrians, as Fran Fenton, a resident of One Miami, observed.
Commander Regueira emails back: “I will send an officer to investigate and take action if appropriate. I will also drive there to observe myself. I have copied my motor unit on this email.”
Two months in the job is not enough time to judge performance, but it does give you an indication as to where things might be heading. And residents from around the neighborhood have detected improvements. Last Friday, a police officer did his rounds on foot along the NE 2nd Avenue. A 50 Byscaine resident said she had noticed improvements at Bayfront Park. Officers have been deployed to Park West to “do some enforcement.”
Unanswered questions and concerns remain. The impunity with which Uber and Lyft drivers stop anywhere at any time, or the lack of a police presence in the most dangerous intersection, the one between WholeFoods and CVS, truly a tragedy waiting to happen. Yet, there is reason to be optimistic about the collaborative relationship between downtown neighbors and the police.
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