Miami street sweeps: American Civil Liberties Union watching FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 23 Apr 1998 13:00:30 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  April 19, 1998 - Miami Herald

  Andy Kayton, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union
  of Florida...pointed out that Miami officers' ``treatment of the
  homeless is subject to court order.'' [from article below]


Miami Herald Staff Writer

People really do sweat the small stuff.

While murders and armed robberies grab headlines, many Miamians are just as
concerned about lower-profile crimes.

Prostitution. Street-level drug sales. Burglaries. Vehicle thefts. Drinking
and gambling in public. Purse and chain snatchings. Illegal dumping.

These are the things they see every day. These are the things that hurt
their neighborhoods.

Now, police will focus on these things.

``What I'm hearing at community meetings and talking to people is that
there is still a lot of low-level street crime: drug sales, aggressive
panhandling, purse snatchings, larcenies,'' said Miami Police Chief Donald

``Things that probably start when people get comfortable on street corners.
They start with vandalism and graffiti and then go to the next level.''

Community police officers in every corner of the city are ready to play
hardball. In one neighborhood, the operation is called the ``Quality of
Life Detail.'' In others, it's ``Zero Tolerance.'' But they all have the
same goal:

``Getting these nuisances off the street is a major part of our agenda for
1998,'' Warshaw said.

Last month, officers working in East Little Havana arrested 36 people for
drinking in public and 21 for narcotics sales and possession. They picked
up 173 shopping carts, which police officers say are used to move stolen
goods, and arrested four homeless people for trespassing.

They towed 18 abandoned vehicles, which attract criminals who think the
area is up for grabs, and caught 19 kids skipping school. Police say they
believe truants account for a lot of the petty daytime crime.

Said Warshaw: ``The message is `Stay off Miami's streets.' ''

It's a message Will Johnson, vice president of the West Coconut Grove
Homeowners and Tenants Association, has been trying to deliver for years.

``In our area, we don't have really the major crimes like rape and murder.
Those things are very few and far between,'' Johnson said. More common in
his neighborhood: drive-up drug deals, drinking in public, gambling.

``These have been called `victimless crimes' -- but the community is the
victim,'' he said. ``We lose. We lose financially. People have a poor
perception of our community. We are working hard to revitalize the Grove
and it doesn't look good when people drive by and see gambling on the
corner or a guy drinking a beer on the sidewalk.

``I would even like to see them enforce the littering law.''

So would Jacqueline Echagarrua, who says illegal dumping -- people leave
tires and other trash near her Shenandoah home -- and other petty crimes
affect a neighborhood's morale as well as property values.

``It's the broken window syndrome,'' she says. ``If you see a broken window
and it's not fixed, then it just gives everybody else the feeling that the
neighborhood is abandoned and anyone can come in and do what they want.''

She sees a group of five or six men almost every evening drinking at the
corner of Southwest Eight Street and 18th Avenue.

``A Beer-of-the-Month club,'' says Echagarrua, mother of two young
children. ``Any curtailing of these activities would really improve our

For anyone who says police should stick to chasing the bigger crooks,
police have one word: escalation.

One of the reasons officers are cracking down on minor infractions is that
they often lead to bigger ones, said Assistant Chief Raul Martinez, in
charge of Miami's field operations.

``If we arrest someone for drinking in public today, we may be preventing a
robbery tomorrow,'' Martinez said.

Johnson, the Grove activist, agrees. ``When people think they can get away
with these small things, then they have no respect for the law when it
comes to the bigger things.''

Little Haiti neighborhood Officer Harvey Nairn says he has found cocaine
and guns on several of the people he has arrested for drinking on the
corner of Northwest Second Avenue and 64th Street.

``They can be selling drugs at the same time,'' Nairn said. ``The little
things like this, a lot of crime stems from them.''

Andy Kayton, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Florida, says he has no problem with the rounding-up of real criminals --
as long as police are not targeting any particular group.

``If there is probable cause to believe that these people have committed
actual crimes then the arrests may have been proper,'' Kayton said. ``If
the sweeps are targeted at people on the basis of race or other status,
such as homelessness, that could be cause for concern.''

He pointed out that Miami officers' ``treatment of the homeless is subject
to court order.''

Last December, the city reached a $1.5 million settlement with the ACLU
over civil rights violations of the homeless in a case that led a judge to
find in 1992 that people who lived on the streets had been arrested without
cause and had property destroyed.

The pending settlement would mandate broad changes in the way police deal
with the homeless. Officers would have to enroll in sensitivity training
and keep written records and ``file extensive reports on any contact they
have with the homeless,'' Kayton said.

But they would also be able to arrest people for loitering, trespassing and
other minor offenses if they refuse to enroll in available residential
assistance programs.

Officers in East Little Havana asked the four homeless people arrested if
they wanted assistance first. They were charged with trespassing on private
property only after they declined the help, said Lt. Hector Mirabile.

Three others, he said, did accept the assistance and were taken to a
homeless center instead of jail.

Said Warshaw: ``This is not just a sweep of people who are standing on
street corners. These are legitimate arrests of people who are violating
city ordinances or state statutes.'


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