Miami police recruiting in overdrive amid political pressure

Under intensifying pressure to quickly increase the number of officers on the street, Miami’s police chief and city manager have gone into recruiting overdrive this summer to better protect the public — and their own jobs.

Over the past several weeks, the city has brought in additional background investigators and paid them overtime to slog through a massive queue of hundreds of police applicants. They have authorized more overtime pay to increase the number of officers responding to calls, outsourced polygraph testing, and proposed paying retired volunteer officers to do administrative jobs done by full-time cops who could otherwise be out on patrol.

City Manager Daniel Alfonso and Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes won’t say how many officers they’ve hired this summer. But they believe the numbers will be enough to satisfy frustrated residents and city commissioners following warnings that their jobs are on the line if they don’t fill dozens of police vacancies.

“These changes, so far, have yielded results,” said Alfonso. “We expect that there will be a marked improvement in the number of hires that have been made in the last two months.”

Commissioners have increased police spending by millions of dollars over the past two years in order to bolster the department by 115 cops and bring the city’s police staffing to 1,261 officers. But, due largely to retirements spurred by recession-era pay cuts, the city had managed only to tread water on police hirings leading into the summer, leading several commissioners to demand better results.

Continued shootings in Liberty City, Overtown and Coconut Grove have heightened political tensions. Police made two major arrests last week in the high-profile killing of 10-year-old Marlon Eason. But a triple-shooting in West Coconut Grove— the 35th, 36th, and 37th shootings in the past four years in that neighborhood, according to information provided to Commissioner Marc Sarnoff — led to talk around City Hall that commissioners could push for the firing of Alfonso or Llanes.

“I am at the end of my patience,” said Fernand Amandi, a South Grove resident and prominent political pollster who threatened in June to call for a vote of no-confidence in Alfonso’s job if crime isn’t curbed in the Grove.

Llanes and Alfonso say they’re doing everything they can to hire more qualified officers and address concerns about violent crime — even if they have to change the laws to make their plan work. For instance, paying part-time officers to free up full-time cops— opposed by the city’s police union— may require a change in laws to deal with complications related to freezing retirees’ pension payments.

Placing retired officers at “front desks alone, that’s three more officers on the street every shift. In a 24-hour period, you’re talking nine more cops on the street,” said Llanes. “That’s significant.”

Whether city commissioners see it that way may be a different story, though they don’t have the authority to fire the city manager of the police chief under the city charter. Meanwhile, the police union looks like it will try to stand in the way of some of Alfonso’s initiatives while arguing instead to improve recruiting by offering better pay and benefits.

“I understand that there is a significant amount of political pressure on this administration to fix our public safety problem,” Fraternal Order of Police president Javier Ortiz wrote Tuesday in a letter to the mayor. “You all need to stop focusing on band-aid approaches and begin to support long term solutions.”

This article has been changed to correct information about shootings in the West Grove since 2012. Police say there have been 37 people shot, three of whom were killed.