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A new sheriff will soon be elected in Miami-Dade County, but how much power will they have?

Police from across Miami-Dade County gather on motorcycles to respond to protests over the summer of 2020
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Police from across Miami-Dade County gather to respond to racial justice and police accountability protests over the summer of 2020.

Starting in 2024, Miami-Dade County will be forced — thanks to a statewide ballot initiative — to elect a county sheriff. But what that new sheriff's office looks like is up for debate.

A grand jury report found in 1966 that the Dade County Sheriff’s Office was engaged in a pattern of corrupt behavior, to the point where it was essentially running a criminal organization.

The office was protecting illegal gambling operations, taking hush money from brothels and even extorting illegal abortion providers for protection.

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Following the scandal, Dade County voters chose to eliminate the elected sheriff and make the county’s police chief an appointed position.

That's been the norm since then, but not for much longer.

Starting in 2024, Miami-Dade County will be forced by a statewide ballot initiative to elect a county sheriff. Currently, Miami-Dade is the only county in the state that does not have an elected sheriff’s office.

What that new sheriff’s office will look like — how large it will be and how it could affect the Miami-Dade Police Department — is entirely up in the air. The county police department is the largest law enforcement agency in the state, larger in the number of officers than even the statewide Florida Highway Patrol.

And it is up to the county commission to make decisions about the sheriff’s office in the coming years.

“This is the most important decision that the Board of County Commissioners is going to make since the creation of single member districts” in the mid-1990s, said Commissioner Raquel Regalado.

That process, stemming from a successful lawsuit filed by late Democratic Congresswoman Carrie Meek, ended at-large districts and opened the door to proportionate Latino and Black representation in county politics. The previous system unlawfully benefited white politicians, a federal judge ruled.

Regalado has emerged as the most vocal proponent of proactively planning for the ramifications of what the new sheriff’s office could mean. She voices frustration on how the county has not yet tackled these questions head-on as the clock is ticking towards that eventual election.

The commissioner holds a vision of a very small sheriff’s office, which would contrast Miami-Dade from how most counties in the state operate.

One part of her preoccupation is the sheer fiscal impact of creating a sheriff’s office. She pointed to costs of when Dade County changed its name to Miami-Dade County in 1997 as an example of what should be expected.

“Just the rebranding of Dade County Police to Miami-Dade Police — just the rebranding was a few million dollars,” said Regalado. “So every time we approve fixing a building or buying cars or any contract that has to do with the police, we should be considering this turnover, and what exactly we’re going to turn over.”

What exactly is a sheriff responsible for?

Constitutionally, the county sheriff’s office is responsible for executing writs, or decisions made by courts. Writs reflect things like residential evictions ordered by the court.

Since Miami-Dade does not have a sheriff’s office, that responsibility is now assumed by the county mayor, currently Daniella Levine Cava, who is technically the sheriff under Florida law. The Miami-Dade Police Department, under her leadership and under prior mayors, has long executed those court orders.

After 2024, those responsibilities will have to be transferred to an elected sheriff. That much is clear. But whether the rest of the county police department’s duties should be assumed by the elected sheriff or not is up for debate — and up to the discretion of the county commission.

“We don’t have to have a giant sheriff. We have a minimum statutory requirement, and I feel very comfortable with an office of the sheriff that executes writs and has about 80 police officers or deputy sheriffs,” argued Regalado. “I don’t think that we should give up the Miami-Dade police force. I think it should continue under the office of the mayor with a police chief.”

One reason Regalado is deeply skeptical of a large sheriff’s office is that elected sheriffs have the ability to sidestep budgeting decisions made by the mayor and the county commission, and lobby the governor and the Florida Cabinet to unilaterally raise taxes on county residents.

“The bigger you make the office, the bigger the potentiality of that,” she said.

Those same concerns were echoed by former Miami-Dade Mayor and current Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez when the 2018 ballot amendment was going before statewide voters.

“You’ll have a completely separate department and elected official vying for the same tax dollars as, say, your parks department and public works,” Gimenez told WLRN at the time.

Gimenez stood against the ballot amendment then because he feared it would only introduce politics into policing, something he did not agree with at the time.

“Maybe some people wanted more political positions, more elected positions here in this county. Being a politician myself, I don’t think we need any more politicians, thank you very much,” Gimenez said.

Regalado shares that skepticism, offering that perhaps lawmakers in Tallahassee wanted to create a “bench” of countywide elected officials across every county, as candidates that can springboard from those positions to higher office.

The statewide ballot initiative specified that every Florida county has to elect a total of five constitutional officers: a county sheriff; tax collector; property appraiser; supervisor of elections and clerk of court.

Along with the elected sheriff, Miami-Dade will also be forced to elect a tax collector and supervisor of elections in 2024. All of those roles are currently filled by appointments by the county mayor.

In Broward County — which is also impacted by the ballot measure — voters will be forced to elect a tax collector, a position now occupied by an appointed chief financial officer.

The only other county impacted by the ballot measure is Volusia County, which appoints most of its constitutional officers. Every other county in the state already elects all of the five required positions.

The origin of the idea

The idea of putting a statewide ballot referendum before voters that would force Miami-Dade to have an elected sheriff was introduced by former Republican State Sen. Frank Artiles, shortly before he resigned from office following his use of racial slurs against colleagues. Artiles is now facing felony charges of campaign finance violations, stemming from a controversial Florida Senate race in 2020 involving a sham candidate.

“I think that a consolidation of power is corruption. And therefore I believe that sheriffs should be elected, should have their own budgets, and be constitutional officers. And that is specifically why I’m doing this,” said Artiles in 2017 when he introduced the measure.

Jess McCarty, a lobbyist for Miami-Dade County, told WFSU in 2017 that he was concerned with putting such a vote before voters across the entire state.

“The voters of Miami-Dade County could vote against this and the rest of the state could impose it on the voters of Miami-Dade County,” he said.

In the end, it was the Florida Constitution Revision Commission that placed Amendment 10 on statewide ballots in 2018. The group meets every 20 years to propose changes to the state constitution.

A total of 63.2% of Miami-Dade voters approved Amendment 10 when it was put on the ballot.

However, the question was sandwiched in between two other questions, about creating a permanent Department of Veterans’ Affairs and a statewide anti-terrorism office — two offices that already existed at the time -- and about changing the scheduling of state legislative sessions.

All three questions appeared on the same ballot item, and it easily passed in the statewide vote.

Uproar over the practice of “bundling” ballot questions together in the 2018 election has sparked discussions in the Florida Legislature that could abolish the Constitution Revision Commission and prevent them from meeting again in the future.

What's behind the hold up in the county?

The main thing preventing Miami-Dade County from moving forward with planning what the sheriff’s office will look like, is the fact that Commissioner Joe Martinez has a legislative “hold” on the item.

Having a “hold” means that no other elected commissioner can bring forth items or actions on the subject matter until the person “holding” the legislation agrees to let it move forward.

For Regalado, this presents a dilemma. She feels that the hold is being used politically, possibly in an attempt to hold off on preparations until the very last moment, and in the process prevent potential candidates for sheriff from pitching their hat into the race.

“I think the problem with our board is that the person who has that item wants to be the sheriff,” she said. “So you kind of have the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

Commissioner Martinez is a former law enforcement officer who will be termed out as a county commissioner in 2024, when the sheriff’s election is set to take place.

His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The ugly history of the sheriff’s office in Miami-Dade hangs heavily over Regalado and her calls to quickly move on figuring out what the sheriff’s office could look like.

“It should be a movie. Like, someone should go back and make this movie. Because it’s something that if you saw it in a movie you’d be like, ‘Ah that’s impossible. Like, you can’t have that level of corruption,” she said. “But it’s Miami.”

To prevent anything like that from happening again, Regalado envisions a series of town hall meetings or participatory gatherings, where residents can share their own vision of what the new sheriff’s office might look like. A potential model, she said, is how the Miami-Dade Department of Juvenile Services handled splitting off from the Miami-Dade Police Department.

That process involved heavy public engagement and opportunities to speak that shaped how that office looks today.

“A hundred percent what I want is more participation, so that at least the Board of County Commissioners hears from the residents,” she said.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.