MIAMI (CBSMiami) – “A Saturation Detail.” In police parlance it is a term used to describe an operation in a particular neighborhood where officers blanket the area.
“Saturation means high visibility, we go in and we saturate the area in an effort to deter crime,” explained Miami-Dade Police Major Andrianne Byrd, who oversees the South District Station. “If [crime] was going to occur here, it is no longer going to. We just get in there and we make ourselves visible, we make ourselves known.”
One police supervisor was blunter, privately describing a saturation detail as “scorched earth.” Every person, walking or driving through that area, will get stopped, individuals will be patted down and have their IDs run. Nothing moves unless the officers say it’s okay to move. And the unit that often carries out those details is called a Crime Suppression Team – a group of plainclothes officers that ride around in unmarked cars.
“They don’t come at us like we men that pay taxes, that work every day, that have families to feed,” complained a 29-year-old South Dade resident who has been stopped numerous times. “They come at us like everybody’s robbers, everybody’s thieves and everybody murderers.”
Community leaders complain the aggressive police tactics end up alienating the community. And since police focus saturation details in high crime neighborhoods – which are often poor and black – the approach often causes a rift between police and blacks, with blacks feeling harassed and disrespected.
Byrd grew up in the predominantly black South Dade neighborhood of Richmond Heights and says she is sensitive to allegations of police harassment.
“Because I’m African American I do have that experience from both sides of the street,” she said. “When I put this shirt on and I cover up all of the important parts, I’m still African American. When I take this shirt off, I still have those same concerns for my own son and my own grandson, whether or not they are going to go out, whether or not they’re going to be profiled.”
Has that happened to her son or grandson?
“Oh, yes absolutely,” she said. “My son has been stopped on several occasions.”
And her reaction to the incidents?
“It makes me angry,” she said. “It makes me angry because I know there wasn’t reasonable suspicion or probable cause for the stop.”
Nevertheless, she took exception that her officers abuse their power as a routine matter of policy.
“We are not stopping everything moving,” she countered. “We know there has to be a reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.”
A five-month CBS4 News investigation examined every arrest made by the South District’s Crime Suppression Team, documenting an array of cases in which cars driven by young black men were stopped for the minor offense of the driver not wearing a seatbelt.
“That may be true,” she said. “That might be the reason for the stop initially. And it might seem minor, but it is against the law, and if [after the stop] they come upon something that’s illegal, come upon someone who now is carrying marijuana, they are doing their jobs. They are enforcing the law.”
When the seat belt law was being debated, civil rights groups worried police would use the law as a pretext to stop blacks they otherwise would have no justification for stopping.
That level of enforcement rarely takes place in white or affluent communities, civil rights groups argue.
The aggressive enforcement is about improving the quality of life for the people who live there, according to Byrd. We showed Byrd the results of our review of the arrests made by her Crime Suppression Team, including the fact that 65 percent of the arrests they made were for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Byrd said it was an effective use of her unit’s time to arrest of 245 individuals for possession of a pot.
“I think it is,” she said. “And it’s not about the misdemeanor arrest it’s about quality of life. A mother doesn’t feel like it’s safe to send her kid to a corner market to get a loaf of bread for dinner, cause we’ve got guys hanging out, getting high, smoking marijuana, or drinking beer in front of that establishment. And also these minor crimes lead to more serious crimes. It’s about giving the appearance these neighborhoods are safe too for the hard working people that live there.”
The result of this approach however creates a focus on the quantity of the arrests being made.
“It will turn out to be a numbers game to try and make as many arrests as possible to show that you are doing something to benefit that community,” said former Miami Police Chief Manny Orosa. “But what you end up doing is upsetting a lot of people in those communities.”
When Orosa took over the department in 2011, he disbanded units like the Crime Suppression Teams – placing nearly 90 officers back in uniform.
“For me it’s a lot better to use people in uniform, people in police cars, doing the same type of operations, but not necessarily going out and just saturating an area and harassing everything that moves in that area.”
Prior to Orosa being chief, Miami Police were under intense scrutiny from the community and the Justice Department because of seven separate shootings in which black men were killed by police. Many of those shootings involved units like the Crime Suppression Team. Orosa believes police involved shootings in the city dropped dramatically because of his decision slash the number of plain clothes officers in unmarked cars jumping out at people – creating needlessly dangerous situations.
“For the people who don’t believe what I have to say, all I’m saying is I used to run one of those tactical units,” he said. “I was a sergeant on a crime suppression unit, so I know exactly the inner workings of those units.”
A review of crime statistics in the South District offers a mixed review of the crime suppression team’s work. While rapes, auto thefts and residential burglaries were down in 2014 – robberies, larcenies, commercial burglaries, aggravated assaults and aggravated batteries were up.
Major Byrd revealed she had ordered changes to her crime suppression team – changing the sergeant that directly oversaw the team and replacing four of its six officers. She also announced that while they would still drive around in unmarked cars, they would now wear uniforms that clearly identified them as police. She also said they would be changing some of their tactics.
“I had concerns about how that team was operating,” she said. “The type of work they were doing and how they could be more effective in my district. For example, we don’t need them to just hit those targeted areas. I need them for more than that.”