July 12, 2020
Meeting flooded with demands for Miami-Dade to shift police dollars into housing, aid
 
 
By Douglas Hanks
 

The national “Defund the Police” movement came to a usually sleepy forum of Miami-Dade government on Tuesday, as dozens of speakers urged commissioners to shift tax dollars from law enforcement and spend it on social services, housing and other expenses that can improve quality of life. 

“We are not made safer by giving money to people with guns and weapons that are instigating violence in our community,” said South Miami resident Morgan Gianola, one of about 270 people who signed up to speak during an online meeting of the commission’s Public Safety Committee. “We remain safer by giving people houses and food and education.” 

The stream of comments upended the agenda of a panel that oversees one of the largest police departments in the country but often can dispatch with its monthly business so quickly that its last meeting was adjourned within 13 minutes. This one lasted more than three hours, the latest installment of an activist effort against racist policing that was sparked by street demonstrations over the death of George Floyd during a Minneapolis arrest.

Officially, the issue was an item sure to pass: a resolution by Commissioner Barbara Jordan calling for a report on police tactics and rules for restraints and physical force when taking someone into custody. But the speakers organized by Dream Defenders and other groups highlighted a broader cause of questioning fundamental spending priorities of a county government where police and jails receive 45 cents of every dollar raised from property taxes and other general funds. 

We the people have a right to live in a society free of militarized policing,” Victoria Montonaro said during her time on the phone-in line for the meeting that ended up having about 100 people speak or waive their time when called on to address the board. “The time is now for investing in our community, and divesting from our police department.” 

The flood of comments falls during a budget season where Miami-Dade commissioners are already planning a temporary boost of police pay through a 1% salary supplement that would last as long as the county is under an emergency declaration for the coronavirus. Firefighters and correctional officers would receive the same increase under the proposal

The county is also considering spending nearly $400 million replacing aging detention facilities, money administrators say would bring down operating costs with more efficient and humane surroundings. Critics see it as more reflexive spending on enforcement at the expense of the low-income residents that tend to populate jail cells.

While the stream of speakers left commissioners amazed — “Normally the Public Safety Committee is something we handle in five minutes or less” said Chairman Joe Martinez — there weren’t calls from the committee members to cut the police department’s $771 million budget

Commissioners did endorse calls for more police scrutiny, including Jordan’s proposal for a civilian oversight board, and said the weeks following Floyd’s death have shown Miami-Dade needs to rethink law enforcement.

“We cannot let pass by this moment for transformational change,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a candidate for mayor in 2020. “This is what democracy looks like.” 

NO PRO-POLICE VOICES

Martinez said residents who want more police protection and services weren’t part of the meeting and could produce their own stream of comments reflecting the other side of the argument. “We would have had 10,000 callers on the line,” he said. 

Speakers emphasized they weren’t there to be deferential to commissioners, with several chastising the officeholders for not paying attention while citizens spoke. One noted they had demonstrated on Miami streets, and could do the same outside commission offices and residences. They may have scored one quick win: Commissioners deferred an item calling for more police patrols at parks.

“Having police in our parks makes our parks more dangerous,” Miami resident Domingo Castilllo said. Tax dollars “would go much further to have social workers at our parks.”

The real showdown could begin this summer when Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposes his 2021 budget and commissioners must vote to approve or amend the spending plan in September. About 82% of the county police budget goes to pay and benefits. 

The “defund police” movement is an umbrella term representing a range from a drastic dismantling of a local police force to imposing budget cuts in order to free up tax dollars for other services. 

Across the country “reforming our police departments has been consistently tried and failed,” Sabrina Mujeres, a Coral Gables resident, told commissioners. “Our only option is to begin defunding the police and investing that money into community services.” 

NO SPECIFIC FUNDING DEMANDS

Speakers did not make specific dollar demands at the meeting beyond wanting Miami-Dade to not consider building a replacement jail.

Commissioner Sally Heyman characterized the speakers as using isolated police misconduct to condemn entire agencies. 

She pointed to Miami-Dade’s civil citation program and other efforts to reduce jail time for minor offenses. “To everybody who spoke about ‘defunding,’ there’s more good than bad in pretty much any profession,” she said. “I do appreciate a call out for reform. But it shouldn’t come with disbanding. ... I”ll stand with my police officers.”

Tuesday’s proceedings also amplified the disconnect between protesters demanding a hard look at police misconduct across Miami-Dade and elected officials and police administrators praising the department as a national example always poised to root out bad officers. 

Amalia Villafane spoke through tears about her son, who was shot six times by a county police officer in 2012, while he lay on a sidewalk. The officer wrongly thought the 16-year-old, Sebastian Gregory, was going for a gun. It was a bat stuffed inside his clothing. Prosecutors called the shooting justified that left Gregory partially paralyzed. Gregory killed himself in 2016.

“My family is destroyed,” she said. “I support Black Lives Matter, and knowing everything that is in hiding now.”