Seeking a balance between outreach and enforcement, Miami is launching a nearly $1 million crime-fighting initiative in Overtown that will mix police patrols, video cameras — and suit-and-tie wearing Muslims.
The stepped-up policing seeks to deter would-be lawbreakers without making Overtown residents feel ”invaded,” in the words of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
Which is where the Muslims come in.
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Along with budgeting hundreds of thousands of dollars for increased police patrols and the installation of surveillance cameras, Miami is spending $150,000 on a ”Peacemakers” pilot program run by a nonprofit with ties to the Nation of Islam.
Under the proposed contract, which should be finalized in the coming weeks, the Peacemakers would function as a liaison between police and the community.
A mixture of suit-wearing Muslims and T-shirt-wearing outreach workers — of various denominations — will walk the streets of Overtown, reporting crimes, referring the drug-addicted and homeless to support agencies and listening to concerns.
”Sometimes the residents don’t want to talk to the police,” said Spence-Jones, who is spearheading the effort. “We have to look at other ways.”
Commissioners, acting as the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, voted 3-0 last month to spend $993,392 for the combination of video cameras, increased patrols and Peacemakers.
Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Angel Gonzalez were absent.
As the money was approved, Spence-Jones, whose district includes Overtown, said she wants Peacemakers on the streets before video surveillance starts.
The cameras are identical to those already monitoring some parts of downtown.
But where downtown has its ”Ambassador” program — a uniformed private-security detail that also exists to direct lost visitors — Overtown’s Peacemakers aim to inspire black youth in need of role models.
The group’s suits and ties have meaning, according to Peacemaker organizer Minister Rasul Muhammad.
”What we need most is moral reform,” he said.
Yet questions remain on how exactly the partnership between police and Peacemakers will take shape.
Muhammad said his group would carry radios that can instantly connect with police.
Yet Miami Police Maj. Jorge Gomez, who supervises Overtown and surrounding areas, said: “We really don’t have anything to do with that program. They don’t have any radios. . . . They’ve got to call 911 just like anybody else.”
In making his argument for city funding, Muhammad highlighted successful Nation of Islam-affiliated programs in other cities, such as Detroit.
Not all ventures found success.
New Orleans police in 2005 rescinded a $15,000 police-sensitivity training contract with a longtime security director for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — after facing widespread criticism from local religious leaders and officers over that group’s reputation as anti-Semitic.
Though Miami’s Peacemakers say they will not advocate any religion and are not officially aligned with the Nation of Islam, the Peacemakers’ corporate offices are at the religious group’s Miami mosque.
Rasul Muhammad is a prominent Nation of Islam member and the son of former leader Elijah Muhammad.
Asked about the Peacemakers’ planned role in Miami, the Anti-Defamation League raised concerns.
”While we appreciate the city of Miami’s efforts to improve conditions in the Overtown area,” wrote Andrew Rosenkranz, Florida regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, “we are concerned that it did not fully understand the nature of the organization that it chose to provide these services.”
Muhammad responded, “We are not anti-Jewish people. We are not anti-Catholic people. We are not anti-white people. The whole Peacemakers project is being based on being anti-crime, anti-immorality . . . . Are they saying that they don’t want peace?”
Muhammad declined to have organizers pose for pictures for this article, saying he was reluctant to make a big media splash now.
Muhammad was also reluctant to discuss a minor lawsuit filed against the nonprofit Progressive Land Development International Inc., the group that would run Peacemakers. The suit alleged Progressive Land failed to return a $950 security deposit to a tenant in a Liberty City apartment building it owns.
Muhammad, who court records show was served in the lawsuit, denied his group even owns any apartments. County property records show multiple Liberty City apartment buildings owned by a Progressive Land Development Group Inc., that lists its business address as the Nation of Islam’s Miami mosque.
”That has to be something else,” Muhammad said. “That’s not us.”
When awarded the contract by city leaders, Muhammad said his group would have performed some outreach for free, but that the city’s $150,000 commitment will allow a greater street presence. Muhammad thanked Spence-Jones, calling the expanded program her “brainchild.”
Once a contract with the city is finalized, the Peacemakers would start on a three-month trial basis this summer.
The group vows big results for Overtown:Its written proposal predicts a 25 percent drop in drug crimes, a 30 percent boost in ”community assisted drug rehabilitation” and a 50 percent dip in illegal dumping.
On Overtown’s busy Northwest Third Avenue strip, Loren Daniel welcomes the concept.
Daniel, who runs the city’s Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team, is mindful that schools will be letting out soon. And Daniel still has vivid memories of last summer.
”All these corners had these high school kids dealing the drugs for them,” Daniel said. “Desperate people do desperate things.”
He said the Nation of Islam carries ”street credibility,” and added: “Any positive influence that our young kids see, particularly in this community, where there’s so few males anyway, would be a help.”