Liberty City Officer Makes Friends, Builds Trust On Patrol

Aug 19, 2015

Daniel Mocombe was about 13 years old when his family moved to the Village of El Portal, a small municipality just north of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

Mocombe was exploring the new neighborhood on a bike when a police officer stopped him.

“The officer asked me where I stole the bike from. He assumed I didn’t live in the neighborhood. He was belittling me and talking down to me like I was nothing,” Mocombe recalls.

He told the officer the bike wasn't stolen and that he lived in the neighborhood. The officer said he didn’t believe him, but let him ride off.

Mocmobe says that as he rode his bicycle home, the officer followed him in his patrol car, finally driving off when Mocombe got inside the house.

Mocombe now works for the Miami Police Department as a neighborhood resource officer in Liberty City. He says he carries with him that negative interaction he had with the  officer as an example of what not to do.

“You know, people just want to be treated like human beings,” Mocombe says from his patrol car as he rides along Northwest Seventh Avenue.

A large part of Mocombe’s job is building relationships between the community and the police department.

In recent years, fatal police-involved shootings in Miami’s predominantly black neighborhoods have hurt those efforts, combined with a historic mistrust of police.

As Mocombe rides through Liberty City, he comes to a stop every few blocks to greet people on street corners or in front of their homes.  He shouts out, “Hi, how are you?” and “Y’all have a nice day now.”

He says these pleasantries matter.

“You greet people. You speak to them," Mocombe says. “When you build a relationship with them, they do talk to you. But if you don't have a relationship with them, you won't get anything out of them.”

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes is encouraging all of his patrol officers to interact with community members beyond traditional stops and investigations.

“We can't stand back and say, ‘Well, why aren't people cooperating with our investigations when we're investigating murders or shootings or robberies?’” Llanes says. “Why blame the community for not trusting us, when we're not engaged in activity to gain their trust?”

Llanes drops in at roll calls across the department, reminding officers to engage more and build relationships with the communities they serve. Sometimes, he tells officers, that might mean throwing around a football with neighborhood teens between calls, or buying an ice cream cone for a child.

His message, he says, isn’t always well received.

“There's some pushback from officers and some supervisory staff,” Llanes says. “Change is uncomfortable for everybody and so there will always be naysayers and people who wish to remain comfortable.”

Edward Darden, right, and his friend catch a ride with Officer Daniel Mocombe in the Liberty Square Housing projects as rain falls outside.
Credit Nadege Green / WLRN

In Liberty City, Officer Mocombe is heading west along Northwest 62nd Street to the Liberty Square housing projects, better known as the Pork 'N' Beans.

He sees two teens he knows from the neighborhood walking around the housing projects.

“What you doing in the Beans?” he shouts out his window. “Ain’t nothing good out here for you.”

It’s a gray day in Liberty City. Light rain drips from the sky.

One of the teens, Edward Darden, tells Mocombe he’s heading home. Mocombe tells the young men to hop in the car and he’ll drop them off.

Edward, 16, and Officer Mocombe became friends a few months ago. Edward fit the description of a purse-snatching suspect. Mocombe stopped him.

“I was supposed to be at school, but I wasn’t in school and he said that they was looking for somebody and I was on a bike,” Edward says.

Mocombe cuts in: He remembers Edward cursing him out as soon as he stopped the teen.

“He already had an attitude, like, 'I don’t like the police' and 'F the police.' You know what I’m saying. I had him sitting on the curb and he started flipping out. Flipping out,” Mocombe says.

Edward wasn’t the suspect officers were looking for, but Mocombe wanted to teach the young man a lesson in communication. That day, they walked along Northwest Seventh Avenue together. Edward’s assignment was to speak to strangers -- nicely.

“I learned how to control my temper. He a good officer,” says Edward. “We need more like him out here on these streets. Some of them quick to take you without taking the time out to talk to the young black kids in the community.”

About halfway through his shift, Officer Mocombe stops by the Winn-Dixie grocery store in Liberty City.

He picks up some oatmeal cookies and vanilla ice cream, the single-serve kind.

The sweets are for his reading club. He started the weekly reading session over the summer for the neighborhood kids he saw weren’t in summer camps. The youngest is 5 and the oldest is 21.

Sean Singleton, 8, is one of about 20 kids who participate in Officer Daniel Mocombe's summer reading club in Liberty City.
Credit Nadege Green / WLRN

They meet on the second floor of the Liberty City police station for about an hour.

This time, Officer Mocombe reads from the Winnie The Pooh Storybook collection:

“Now Pooh was a bear with very little brain,” he reads aloud.

Other officers and police staff pop in and read along with the kids.

Anton McKoy, 21, brings his younger siblings and cousins to the reading club. He stays the whole hour and helps out with the younger kids who struggle with their reading.

But, he says, he doesn’t like the police.

“I think [the] police bad people,” he says during an ice cream break.

McKoy says his experience with police has mostly been officers, “jumping out and putting people on the floor and beating them up.”

Buy maybe because of the experiences these younger kids are having in Officer Mocombe’s reading group, they won’t grow up with the same disdain he has for police, McKoy says.

“That’s showing that it’s good police officers out here,” says McKoy. “And my little cousins and them are not gonna grow up and be like,  ‘F the cops,’ and all that. They probably gonna go to the cops for help.”