By Francisco Alvarado,FloridaBulldog.org
Patrolling the streets of Opa-locka has never been meaner.
The small, predominantly African-American city’s police department is plagued with widespread low morale, poor managerial leadership, officers who abuse sick leave, inadequate policies and procedures, a deteriorating evidence room and broken-down squad cars discarded by other law enforcement agencies. Those are some of the most damning findings in a recently completed assessment report by the Miami-Dade County Police Department.
The county’s review, which took place between Jan. 28 and March 31, concluded that the Opa-locka Police Department needs a top-to-bottom overhaul that if left unaddressed “could negatively impact its ability to provide the quality of service expected of a modern, professional police department.”
Moreover, the assessment is the latest sign of ongoing turmoil in the 4.5-square-mile town that has been through tumultuous upheaval especially in the last four years. It began when federal agents raided City Hall in 2016 as part of a public-corruption probe that ultimately resulted in the arrest and convictions of seven City Hall officials and insiders, including lobbyist Dante Starks, then-Commissioner Luis Santiago, then-public works director Gregory Harris and then-City Manager David Chiverton.
Ever since Opa-locka, one of Florida’s poorest cities, has been under state financial oversight to avoid going bankrupt and dodged an attempt last year in the Florida Legislature to dissolve the city and make it part of unincorporated Miami-Dade.
The town’s top elected officials would not comment. Mayor Matthew Pigatt and Vice Mayor Chris Davis, who were part of a slate of reform candidates elected to the city commission in 2018, referred Florida Bulldog questions to current City Manager John Pate. Commissioners Sherelean Bass, Alvin Burke and Joseph Kelly did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Opa-locka Police Department
Also, Police Chief James Dobson, who oversees 41 sworn cops and 18 civilian employees in the Arab-themed town of 16,356 residents, did not return phone messages left with his executive assistant.
Pate, Opa-locka’s seventh city manager in eight years, was hired following a four-year stint as manager, police chief and fire chief for University Park, Illinois, a small village of 7,000 people about an hour’s drive from Chicago that was going through similar troubles as Opa-locka. According to the Miami Times, the 35-year-old administrator took the helm of University Park during an FBI investigation into potential misuse of taxpayer money.
Pate, who is paid $162,500 annually by Opa-locka, told Florida Bulldog he requested the police department assessment as his first order of business shortly after being hired last September.
“I wanted an unbiased report on how to move the City forward,” Pate wrote in a May 28 email. “This report delineates the appropriate steps for course remediation to formulate a plan. We are utilizing the findings of this assessment to guide our next steps.”
According to the assessment, the problems in the Opa-locka Police Department start at the top. The report noted that 75 percent of employees told county reviewers the lack of effective communications from command staff has negatively impacted the police department’s productivity. Assessors found that employee inquiries went unanswered for days, sometimes for weeks.
A department in disarray
“Many employees indicated in their survey that decisions about discipline, assignments, schedules and even promotions are often made in such a way as to protect some at the expense of others,” the report states. “While others disagreed with this perception, the fact that it exists in the minds of so many is indicative of the poor messaging in the department.”
In addition to ineffective communications, the top brass doesn’t hold rank-and-file officers and civilian staffers accountable and hasn’t addressed rampant abuse of sick leave. According to the report, more than 50 percent of the police department’s employees said that excessive sick leave by some officers is having a negative impact on morale. Some cops are calling in sick at the last minute, forcing their colleagues to give up their time off to cover shifts.
Other deficiencies identified in the report include:
- The police department’s policies and procedures are poor, outdated and legally questionable. For instance, there is no policy regarding vehicular pursuits. The report states: “Is the department ready to accept the loss of innocent lives if for some reason the lack of training or vehicle maintenance were to cause the death of a pedestrian or motorist?”
- Evidence is stored in individual lockers instead of a central repository; the evidence custodian is a former North Miami Beach cop who was fired and arrested; and the evidence room is in Opa-locka’s old police building, which has minimal security and a leaky roof, raising the risk of evidence being damaged, misplaced or stolen.
- A majority of the squad cars are hand-me-downs from other agencies and a majority are 2008 models with more than 100,000 miles that require constant repairs. The cars also don’t have crime scene tape, first-aid kits, jumper cables and other equipment needed by officers on the road.
Merrett Stierheim – a former Miami city manager, Miami-Dade county manager and Miami-Dade public schools superintendent who did a brief pro bono stint as a financial oversight advisor to Opa-locka in 2017 – said the police department appears to “desperately need new leadership” after he read the report.
“It was certainly an indictment of the current leadership,” Stierheim said. “There are so many things wrong that [the police department] needs a professional overhaul. The complaints are almost universal in every category.”
[Disclosure: Stierheim is a member of Florida Bulldog’s board of directors.]
James Wright, a private security consultant who served as Opa-locka’s police chief from 2005 to 2008, said the assessment report reminded him of similar problems he tried to fix during his tenure. As Opa-Locka’s top cop, Wright was hit with an avalanche of personnel complaints about his autocratic style and allegations of sexually harassing female employees — which he has adamantly denied and continues to do so. According to his Florida Department of Law Enforcement profile, Wright was terminated from Opa-Locka for administrative reasons not involving misconduct.
Fast action needed
“The current police chief certainly has the discretion to identify a supervisor along with other personnel to fix those issues that can be resolved quickly,” Wright said. “It is not something that is difficult to achieve. But it must be done in an expeditious manner.”
Wright said the police department’s biggest obstacle had been previous city commissioners who intervened in personnel matters and failed to appropriately fund the small force. “I wholeheartedly believe that the policy-makers who are there now want to see the city move in the right direction,” Wright said. “I would go out on a limb that while they are in office, their intent is to see it through.”
Andrew Axelrad, general counsel for the South Florida Police Benevolent Association, told Florida Bulldog that Pate’s predecessors would refuse to believe anything was wrong with the Opa-locka Police Department. The PBA is the police union for Opa-locka’s rank-and-file officers.
“We applaud John Pate for allowing this assessment to be undertaken, knowing that it would expose severe flaws within the department,” Axelrad said. “The rank and file officers continue to act with professionalism through very difficult circumstances of which they have no control, while at the same time meeting their obligations to the citizens of Opa-locka.”
Nevertheless, Opa-locka’s new political regime has a tall order in the months ahead, according to Stierheim. “You would like to see the city survive,” he said. “But the challenges are just awesome to overcome.”