The current recruitment crisis in law enforcement is not new to the profession. In the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, police agencies around the U.S. were under fire for their hiring practices. Miami, Florida is an example of the lessons that must not be forgotten. This spate of corruption left over 100 Miami police officers suspended, fired, or prosecuted in a massive scandal. And America may be on the verge of another wave of disorder.
The perfect storm of corruption is one that may portend similar problems in policing with many of the seeds of Miami’s tragedy being planted today. They include massive immigration, increased drug-related crime, and lowered hiring standards for police recruits. Sound familiar?
As with many cities with diverse populations, the racial tensions of the 1970s and 1980s flared from time to time in Miami. In 1979 a black motorcyclist did a wheelie in front of a local law enforcement officer and made an obscene gesture toward the officer. The officer pursued the cyclist, joined by a dozen other patrol vehicles, resulting in the cyclist’s violent arrest and subsequent death. Six officers were charged with crimes in the incident, including one charge of 2nd-degree murder. A not guilty verdict sparked a riot in Miami that resulted in 18 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and millions of dollars of property damage. This was just one of the racially charged disturbances in the city’s history, often related to alleged mistreatment of black citizens by white police officers.
During this time, Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba caused hundreds of thousands of Cubans to find refuge in Florida. He branded anyone who left Cuba as a social deviant and required those leaving to confess to being criminals or social degenerates. In 1980, he unleashed hundred of incarcerated Cubans who fled to Florida who were in fact criminals or mentally ill. Although these were relatively few, all were suspect. The competition for jobs and social services with current minority residents created new racial tensions.
At the same time that this immigrant population increased, the rate of violent crime, homicide in particular, increased by 68% in Dade County. With the increase in population and crime, the demand on police services was understandably challenging. Budget cutbacks had frozen the hiring of police officers from 1975-1977. The rioting and disorder were cited as the cause of a high number of police officers resigning. Even while crime was rising, the department’s strength fell from 777 officers in 1974 to 654 in 1980. Most of the officers who left were white, and the department’s staffing did not reflect the demographics of the population they served.
As a result of lawsuits challenging the lack of black officers in the department, 80% of new hires beginning in 1980 had to be women or racial minorities. All hires were from Miami or the surrounding Dade County rather than from recruiting nationally for the most qualified candidates as had been the previous practice. By 1982 there were 714 new hires, doubling the department. Hiring practices were removed from the direct control of the police department which was now handed a list of candidates from which they were required to choose.
The lowered hiring standards imposed to meet the demands of the federal court mandates resulted in the acceptance of hires that would have previously been rejected. Poor work histories, credit problems, poor driving records, criminal histories, and persons fired from previous employment for theft or moral turpitude were accepted, many of whom were called out of the academy to be served active warrants. Previous drug use was not an eliminating factor, nor was the failure to pass a polygraph exam. Hiring was focused on screening in candidates, not screening out. The crisis was not caused by hiring minority officers, but by ignoring sound standards and hiring practices. More new hires also meant that less experienced officers were now promoted to supervisors and training officers, often with less than one year of service.
Another factor in the Miami scandal was the influx of cocaine and the allure of cash from dealers and importers.
If any of this sounds like back to the future, it should. Unchecked immigration, uncontrolled drug traffic at the border, poor support of law enforcement and morale causing resignations and retirements, increasing crime, and a dearth of qualified candidates could set the stage for a nationwide tragedy. Control the border, adequately fund and support the police in order to attract qualified candidates, and let the criminal justice system work for victims rather than offenders, and we might avoid the wreckage of the 1980s.