Not in my city, not on my watch

Officer Marcos Perez was living in Miami when Hurricane Andrew struck in August, 1992. Although not yet a member of the Miami police force, Perez remembers the aftermath of that natural disaster — at the time, the damage caused by Andrew's 150 mph sustained winds made it the costliest hurricane ever to hit the United States. He vowed to educate those who were not living in Miami at the time about preparedness and life-threatening situations.

Today, atop Perez's desk at Miami Police Headquarters, sits a photo of a wide-angle view of the Miami skyline and the caption: "Not in my city, not on my watch."

With visible emotion, Perez recalls what it was like to live through Andrew. "I had just moved here from New York with my wife. We had a new baby and were ready to begin enjoying the Florida lifestyle," he says. "Reports of a monster storm in the Atlantic prompted only curious interest for me, and I didn't prepare myself, my family or my home for what was to come. The roof completely blew off our home and we had to leave to stay with relatives afterward. I felt like I failed my family."

Storm warnings

Perez is now an officer with the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEMHS) for the Miami Police Department. His hope is that he can prepare the people of Miami for whatever disaster might occur, whether natural or man-made. "I am in a race against time," he says. "It could be another hurricane, a tragic accident, or an act of terrorism; it's not if, but when."

Perez adds that neither his department nor the citizens of Miami can depend solely on a federal response. "It was slow to come after Andrew — almost a week," he says. "And we all know what the FEMA response was to Katrina. It's clear we have to educate everyone here to prepare for an extended length of time with no services and no help in sight. It's sad, but it's a fact and realizing that could save your life."

As a result, Miami has developed a systematic approach to disaster preparedness education that is designed to serve the needs of a populace that is both very large and very diverse. Of the 362,470 people living in Miami, approximately 66 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are African-American, and 12 percent are classified as White/Non-Hispanic. The favorable year-round climate is a draw for elderly citizens and also attracts a sizeable homeless population. The program that Miami's OEMHS has created for the city's older citizens illustrates the step-by-step intensity of the department's commitment to public safety in times of emergency.

"We have developed a comprehensive preparation education plan which addresses [our] elderly population on a fixed income," Perez explains. "We distribute preparation kits including things like an ice pack, batteries, shelter-in-place instructions, and evacuation procedures. It gives us a chance to interact with the different communities at a time when there is peace and quiet and help them develop their own survival kits. I encourage them to buy a couple bottles of water one week, a few cans of food the next, keep extra medication on hand during hurricane season, and to keep numbers of friends and family handy and develop a plan to reunite with loved ones if they're separated by an event. We teach them to evaluate their location during a storm, and how to make a decision to shelter in place or evacuate to a safer place."

In Miami, the area east of Biscayne Boulevard is often evacuated when an advancing hurricane reaches Category 3 strength. Other regions of the city are evaluated based on the storm's intensity and direction and the times of high tides. People in mobile homes are encouraged to move to a shelter until the storm passes.

"I tell them to evaluate their own situation, plan to protect their own immediate and extended families, be ready to move if the situation changes, and [plan to] be responsible for themselves for at least 72 hours, preferably a week," Perez says. "It really doesn't take much if you do all the planning and preparation ahead of time, and it could be the difference between life and death."

Human nature

Natural disasters are just one focus of the OEMHS's educational programs. The threat of a terrorist attack, Perez knows, is real and counterterrorism efforts are important. One of the challenges facing OEMHS is the fact that Miami's remarkable diversity is contained in a surprisingly compact land-and-water mass of approximately 35 square miles of land and 20 square miles of water — and that its diversity includes not only people of varying ethnic heritage but a variety of potential infrastructure vulnerabilities. Perez is quick to point out that Miami serves the largest cruise industry volume in the country, for example, and that the city is home to one of the largest seaports in the nation, the second largest international banking district, the largest concentration of South American/Caribbean consulate offices, and one of the nation's 10 busiest airports. In addition, a nuclear reactor is situated just south of the city. Miami's skyline is dotted with some of the largest residential and mixed-use buildings on the East Coast, and construction is ongoing. And, as the Gateway to South America and the Caribbean, the world city of Miami welcomes 10 million domestic and international visitors each year.

Miami Shield is the counterterrorism initiative developed by the Miami Police Department to address these and other challenges. Through community education and literature handed out in three languages, Miami Shield defines the seven escalating signs of terrorism:

  1. surveillance
  2. intelligence gathering
  3. tests of security
  4. acquiring supplies
  5. suspicious persons out of place
  6. dry run/trial run
  7. deploying assets

The brochure also clearly defines suspicious activity and encourages citizens to simply call and report an incident.

"If something doesn't look or feel right, we hope our citizens will let us know," says Perez. "They don't have to give their name and they don't even have to be sure it's a terrorist action. We'd like to know if it's an abandoned car or someone loitering around a sensitive area. In most cases it will be completely innocent, but if it's not we'll be ready."

If people don't call, Perez points out, his department can't follow up, and this can have disastrous consequences. In January of last year, for example, a thunderous explosion in a condominium building forced more than 150 residents to relocate for days. Miraculously, no one was injured, but a Florida State University chemistry student was arrested for illegally storing chemicals in a Miami condo. The chemicals — which were not illegal to possess — were stored in a refrigerator in the apartment. The vapors combined and exploded, which caused a wall of the apartment to blow out. The student apparently had a homemade chemistry lab on the premises stocked with easily obtainable chemicals. He ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor, even though he had been arrested in 2003 for the same type of activity.

"That's exactly where we need the public's cooperation," Perez explains. "If neighbors had seen something, they could have said something and this event might have been avoided."

By land, sea and air

Along with innovative educational programs, several Miami area law enforcement initiatives are designed to do everything possible to foresee and preempt a wide variety of disasters, and to prepare for the events that might occur.

Aviation detail

In February of 2006, the Miami PD celebrated the delivery of a state-of-the-art Eurocopter EC 120B helicopter. John F. Timoney had been appointed Miami PD chief of police three years earlier and had determined that a dedicated air unit was necessary in a post-9/11 world to protect the residents of the city of Miami. Purchased with an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), the Eurocopter ended the 11-year absence of an aviation detail from the force.

The helicopter is equipped with Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) and a Lo-Jack tracking device for stolen vehicles. As part of preventing terrorist activity, the aircraft regularly flies a flight path above all the critical infrastructures within the city's jurisdiction. Also, it fulfills functions related to community policing and proactive law enforcement by cooperating in disaster training drills with the incorporated cities of Coral Gables and Hialeah, and also with the United States Coast Guard in searches in Biscayne Bay. For the 2007 Super Bowl, the aviation detail assisted with the development of the air security plan with the U.S. Department of Defense.

During an impressive nighttime helicopter tour of Miami's shoreline, Sgt. Orlando Villaverde demonstrates the capability of FLIR and Night Sun technology aboard the aircraft. The Night Sun is used for visual searches at night or night approaches to non-illuminated landing areas. It is attached under the rear belly of the aircraft and remotely controlled from within the helicopter by the crewman or pilot. At a strength of 30-million candlepower, the Night Sun is very useful in power outages in the aftermath of a storm.

"We have the ability to utilize state-of-the-art technology to support our patrol units and provide surveillance not possible from ground locations," Villaverde says

Marine units

Protecting the Port of Miami is the responsibility of the Miami-Dade Police Department. The complexity of the waterways within and surrounding Miami make it necessary for the U.S. Coast Guard, port security and water fire rescue departments, the Miami PD, and the federal border patrol and immigration agencies to work cohesively as a team.

Sgt. Mike Gonzalez of the city's Marine Patrol/ SWAT unit explains some of the safety capabilities that working together can create:

"Protecting the infrastructure near the waterways is a 24/7 operation. We assist the State Marine Patrol by keeping the port channel clear of other traffic when there are more than two cruise ships in port. Our divers are equipped with underwater cameras to search for any potential terrorist activity on cruise and cargo ships and often operate with [U.S.] Customs to validate manifests and look for hidden compartments on vessels where contraband or explosives may be hidden.

"Some of the larger cruise ships hold more than 2,000 passengers and crew. If more than two [ships] are in the port at any given time, there is a potential for a dangerous situation whether it be from an accident or terrorist activity. We even prepare for bio-terrorism and the possibility of thousands of travelers arriving in the city infected with some sort of biological agent. We constantly review our emergency procedures with surrounding agencies and the health department to make sure we have the necessary equipment and resources in place to deal with any type of emergency occurring on the water."

Two vessels purchased from Safe Boats International with $440,000 in Port Security Grants each contain FLIR and global position system (GPS) navigation in addition to sophisticated sonar capabilities.

Other tactical equipment

Deputy Chief of Police Frank Fernandez comments on the use of strategic grant funding to equip the Miami PD with state-of-the-art technology and equipment: "In addition to the helicopter and boats, we have been able to use the [federal] UASI, Port Security, Buffer Zone Security, community policing and drug trafficking grants to make significant purchases," he says.

For example, the department has used various grants to purchase ATVs, two Skywatch elevated platforms ($110,000 each), and two mobile command units.

News monitoring

Miami PD officers constantly monitor international news for incidents which could spark a reaction in Miami's diverse population. And no event is expected to draw as much public demonstration as the seemingly imminent death of Fidel Castro.

"We are prepared for an outpouring of emotion when that happens," says Chief of Police Timoney. "We're monitoring that situation closely and have met with all necessary community leaders. We all want the same outcome — to let the Cuban community express their emotions safely." News of Castro's death could bring upwards of 100,000 people to the streets in less than an hour.

Proactive CCTV surveillance

Utilizing a $2.3 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, Miami has begun installing surveillance cameras in five strategic locations near the city's most critical infrastructure areas. The cameras will serve a twofold purpose: first to monitor activity which could unveil terrorist activity and second to maintain visual contact with an ongoing incident.

Tony Utset, Sr., executive assistant for the Miami PD, heads a program to incorporate the cameras into the 911 center and coordinate their feed with incident commanders and patrol units.

"We've seen what powerful crime deterrents cameras can be in other cities," he says. "While other agencies use them for community policing, we are taking a different approach. We are using them in areas where there is a likelihood of an incident occurring, or an area a terrorist might find lucrative." While not being specific about their locations, Utset indicates that the financial, transportation and critical infrastructure areas within the city have been identified and will soon be under the department's watchful eye.

Monitoring will be done at Miami's 911 call center, where cameras already monitor busy intersections. The center receives a combined fire and police total of 65,000 calls a month.

Linda Spagnoli is a law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex offender tracking. She may be reached at ljspagnoli@aol.com.

The chief's perspective

Miami Chief of Police John F. Timoney brings a wealth of experience to Miami. After serving in the ranks of the New York Police Department (NYPD) for 28 years, he became the city's youngest four-star chief. He then became the chief of police for the city of Philadelphia. Four years later, in January of 2003, he took the reins at the Miami Police Department. During his tenure in Miami, Timoney has introduced one of the nation's most restrictive shooting policies — leading to a 20-month period during which not a single bullet was discharged at a civilian — and has seen crime drop by 11 percent. He shares his thoughts on tough issues, including immigration, disaster preparedness and police-related shootings.

On emergencies: "South Florida has an advantage in that we have had a lot of opportunities, through hurricanes, etc., to test our preparedness. We've learned to rely on our highly trained professionals and a very savvy population."

On immigration issues: "We would hate for a witness or a victim of a crime to hesitate coming forward to police with important information because he or she fears that we would question their immigration status … that would be a tragedy. We want the people of Miami to know that our officers are there to help and protect them, not to harass them with green-card checks. With that said, a criminal is still a criminal regardless of immigration status, and if someone commits a serious felony, immigration will be notified of that arrest by the corrections department."

On the use of deadly force: "There are no good shootings, let me make that clear. However, an officer has a right to defend himself, and will only use deadly force as a last resort to protect his own life or that of an innocent citizen."

On violence against officers: "It seems to be rampant across the country. Something is afoot; it's not just a blip on the radar screen. There is a definite increase in officers being shot and killed in the line of duty, and there also seems to be a trend of assailants utilizing assault rifles to commit these offenses."

— Linda Spagnoli

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