Every longtime Miami Beach resident remembers Memorial Day 2011, when eight officers unloaded 116 bullets into a car on a South Beach street, killing Raymond Herisse. It was a breaking point in the Miami Beach Police Department’s (MBPD) long history of mismanagement and alleged racism. Since then, the department has made significant strides to correct its systemic issues.
Today, as the Miami Beach police chief prepares to retire, the city has an opportunity to consider Black candidates for top cop, those with the experience necessary to move the city forward and address its racial complexities head on.
I was elected Miami Beach mayor in 2013, in the wake of the Herisse shooting and other tragedies, and entered office with a mandate to reform the police department. I conducted a nationwide search for a new police chief, ultimately recruiting Dan Oates, who was police chief in Aurora, Colorado, during the “Batman” movie-theater massacre in 2012. Oates had earned a reputation for building a relationship between police and minority communities. President Obama once called him America’s greatest police chief.
We also selected Officer Lauretta Hill, an African-American woman, as deputy chief. She became the highest-ranking woman and highest ranking African American in the history of the department.
Together, Oates and Hill transformed the department with an eye toward increasing accountability. They changed the command staff and made Miami Beach the first municipality in the state to put body cameras on all officers. When Oates retired in 2019, he was succeeded by the current chief, Rick Clements, who brilliantly carried forth the reforms.
As significant as the reforms have been, Miami Beach continues to bear the scars of past injustices. It also faces perennial challenges that can lead to flashpoints of tension between police and Black visitors.
The two biggest challenges facing MBPD are clustered annually around spring break and Memorial Day weekend, when the city draws massive crowds of predominantly African-American tourists visiting for events like the annual Urban Beach Week, a yearly hip-hop and rap event in South Beach. This was the same event taking place when Herisse was gunned down by police in 2011. As a result of frequent incidents during these gatherings, Miami Beach has been accused of racism by the NAACP and ACLU.
While residents can debate whether charges of racism are deserved — or still deserved — now is a prime opportunity to consider a fresh face for the department, one that fully represents the African-American tourists and residents that help power Miami Beach’s culture and economy.
It’s also a prime opportunity to send a message that Miami Beach is intent upon moving past its troubled history, which dates back to when African Americans were not allowed to be on Miami Beach after dark or stay in hotels there.
That history was reflected in the famous play that became a movie, “One Night in Miami,” the story of Cassius Clay after he knocked out Sonny Liston at the convention center in 1963 and became heavyweight champion of the world. Forbidden to stay in Miami Beach, Clay stayed in Miami, where he spent a historic evening discussing civil rights with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown.
Miami Beach has come a long way since then, but we can go further. I’m not arguing that we should consider race a primary qualification for a new police chief. I’m simply arguing that there are many Black police chiefs around the country who deserve full and fair consideration. Think of the legendary Charles Ramsey, the former police chief in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., who was considered one of the all-time greats — and whom we discussed the Miami Beach job with in 2013.
If Miami Beach found an African American chief who was the right fit for our police department, it would be a historic and positive moment. It would give a voice to historically marginalized residents and visitors and help move us forward toward a day when the scales of justice are finally fully balanced.
Philip Levine, a cruise industry entrepreneur, is a former two-term mayor of Miami Beach and one-time Democratic candidate for governor of Florida.