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Miami Beach’s new patrol volunteers walk a beat, aim to deter crime

Members can’t make arrests or carry weapons, but they do go through a police academy training course, officials said

miami beach police volunteer patrol

City of Miami Beach

By Charles Rabin, Martin Vassolo
Miami Herald

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Late last summer while walking a beat with a Miami Beach police officer, Leon Borenstein saw a man steal a chain from a woman’s neck. He gave chase; so did the cops. When police caught up to the suspected thief, Borenstein — who taped the incident on his cellphone — said he told the man to surrender.

The victim showed up a short while later and identified the man that police subsequently took into custody.

“It feels good that you help,” added Borenstein.

Borenstein, a 61-year-old property manager, Beach resident of five years and Israeli military veteran, is one of five original members of Miami Beach’s Citizen Volunteer Patrol. The unit, one of Commissioner Steven Meiner’s major legislative initiatives, received commission support in June.

Though its members can’t make arrests or carry weapons, they do go through a fairly rigorous police academy training course that includes physical training, gun safety and life-like dangerous situations they are likely to encounter.

What they do well now, is navigate the bureaucratic mess that government has become. They know who to contact directly if they spot a crime or find a neighborhood filled with graffiti. Volunteers must be 18, either live on the Beach or own a business and have no criminal history.

Members who put in about 10 to 15 hours of patrol a month, generally pick their spots and times, though they do have to clear it with the police department’s Community Affairs division. They can’t patrol at night and they have to stay out of hot spots like Ocean Drive and the city’s Entertainment District. They aren’t paid.

Meiner had an ear-to-ear grin Monday night in front of the city’s Washington Avenue police headquarters, as the group was introduced to the community. Members spent the past few months training and began patrolling alongside police officers before Thanksgiving. The commissioner said he hoped to grow the unit in the coming months.

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“These are five brave individuals. I think we owe them gratitude,” said Meiner.

Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements stood with the group. He conceded the group wasn’t created because of a soaring crime rate — which unlike many other major cities across the country this year, seemed to be holding steady.

The chief said he hoped the group would deter some crime and act as ambassadors and liaisons between the public and the police department. Though they don’t get real badges, members receive shirts and hats and whistles and identification that looks very much like the real thing.

“They have zero policing authority and they’re not sworn,” Clements said. “They’re another set of eyes and another set of ears on the street.”

The idea of a citizen’s patrol force isn’t new.

New York City — which boasts the largest Auxiliary Police unit in the nation with 45,000 members — began its program more than 100 years ago, in 1916. The group even has an auxiliary deputy chief and a captain. And unlike the Beach — which Clements said is still working out details — its members are considered city employees while on duty and receive worker’s compensation if injured.

The concept of a citizen’s patrol came about during war time — when so many police officers enlisted or were drafted that it caused a depletion in the department. Over the years they’ve mainly helped in traffic and crowd control.

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By 2008, New York City had revised its policy to include training in dealing with domestic violence situations, firearm safety and terrorism deterrence. The past two years have been disruptive to the unit, which was halted in March 2020 when New York City became ground zero in the pandemic.

The city of Miami has had a similar program in place for more than two decades. Members there are required to take a one-day, five-hour course, then complete a police academy training session that lasts a week and takes 20 hours.

They work mostly in two-person teams patrolling the city’s 13 neighborhoods and often take part in large events throughout town. The largest group in Miami are the 40-or-so members who patrol Little Haiti, said Community Relations Maj. Al Guerra.

“It’s for their support. They advocate for us. They know who to call and have direct links,” said the major. “People feel comfortable going to them.”

Guerra said there have been several instances when residents felt comfortable enough to confront a volunteer and inform them of a crime that was later solved because of the information passed along.

Borenstein — the Beach volunteer with an unusually upbeat attitude that he attributes in large part to meditation — said he was helping others long before he joined the Beach patrol. He recalled a time when he spotted a 2-year-old child walking alone near Collins Avenue. He pulled over, picked up the child and called 911. The toddler’s mother eventually found them.

“At the end of the day,” said Leon, “we’re ambassadors.”

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