Gables police chief says growing city will need more protection
By Risa Polansky
Growth of downtown Coral Gables — particularly its retail and restaurant scene — calls for increased policing of the area, Police Chief Michael Hammerschmidt said in a presentation of the police department's five-year strategic plan at Tuesday's City Commission meeting.
"In looking at the growth in the downtown area, it has changed so much. At one point in time, at 5 in the afternoon, the downtown started to empty out," Chief Hammerschmidt said. "It's becoming a very vibrant area. It takes a far greater ratio of officers to citizens."
Increased policing of downtown Coral Gables is the department's first priority, he said, followed by traffic.
During the next five years, he plans to create a downtown policing unit of 12 officers to cover the area from 8 a.m. until about 2 a.m., adding five officers this year, three officers and a sergeant next year and three officers in the following year.
The plan also calls for a second motorcycle squad to better enforce traffic in the city.
Commissioner Ralph Cabrera raised a concern about funding pensions for additional officers, but the chief said more manpower is necessary.
"By devoting officers to this area exclusively, the unit would be trained exclusively in the policing of this unique area of the city," Mr. Hammerschmidt wrote in his report. "The unit's members would not only become known personally by the merchants and residents but would be able to better develop strategies and programs to address the area's unique problems and needs."
The police department's attention is appreciated by downtown businesses, said Mari Molina, executive director of the Business Improvement District, who gave the group's quarterly report Tuesday.
"It certainly speaks to the safety and the nature of our downtown that we haven't needed major police presence, but look at the growth of retail and restaurants," she said. "We certainly appreciate the fact we've become a higher priority within the city."
Contributing to the area's social scene are several new restaurants. Benihana's will open at 242 Miracle Mile and Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches at 125 Miracle Mile this month.
California Pizza Kitchen is to open at 300 Miracle Mile in December and Por Fin at 2500 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in January.
Morton's the Steakhouse, Pasha's, 1909 Café, Nexxt Café, Karma, Chirilios and Salad Creations are slated to open in the area next year.
Retailers such as Sunglass Hut also are on the way.
"There's density in the number of visitors," Ms. Milano said. "We really need to continue to be one of the safest places."
Mr. Hammerschmidt said the police department is considering downtown policing programs such as FAST FAX, in Fairfax, VA, in which a department crime analyst keeps a list of business fax numbers and can mass-fax them details of recent crimes or descriptions of suspects and vehicles.
He also cited Chicago's BEEP-A-BEAT, in which officers give merchants their beeper numbers to use for non-emergency situations such as loitering or shoplifting incidents.
The Miami-Dade Police Department adopted a similar system with cell-phone numbers in the early 1990s, he said.
Ms. Molina said increased policing would be helpful to pedestrian traffic on Miracle Mile. The creation of a centralized, flat-fee valet program in October has contributed to pedestrian flow and has freed up meter space for one-stop shoppers, she said. She said Business Improvement District officials plan to expand the program.
She also said she expects a boom in the area during the upcoming holiday shopping season. "It's truly going to become a more active environment at night."