Don’t force on Miami-Dade an unqualified elected sheriff
Written by Michael Lewis on October 9, 2018
Deep on a long Nov. 6 ballot, a terrible offering could force Miami-Dade to elect a sheriff with no required qualifications.
If passed, our top cop would need no police training, no ability to run a large paramilitary team, no skills in handling personnel or dealing with a big budget – just popularity and the energy to twist arms for campaign cash.
The sheriff wouldn’t need skills dealing with a host of current thorny issues like police weapons use, mass shootings, ethnic sensitivity, crowd control, domestic violence, terrorist situations or hurricane evacuations – just the ability to get votes.
Decades ago we had sheriffs who worked under this structure until several were indicted and voters altered our charter to dump the job. Instead, county managers (and now mayors) appoint a professional director who heads policing in places where city police forces don’t. The structure works.
So, why bring back a failure?
The ballot question, called Amendment 10, isn’t a local initiative. It comes from a panel that, ironically, tried to avoid confusion by lumping into a single yes-or-no question a piñata of unrelated state constitutional changes. The only reason they’re together is to simplify things – but actually that makes them terribly complex.
A yes from 60% of state voters would not only require Miami-Dade to revert to a sheriff and bar us from setting qualifications, it would also dictate when the legislature could meet, make sure the department of veterans affairs could never be abolished, and force elections throughout Florida for not just sheriffs but also property appraisers, supervisors of elections, tax collectors and clerks of court. Moreover, it would create the office of domestic security and counterterrorism in the state’s department of law enforcement.
What a mixed bag. No pieces of the puzzle are related to the others. It’s like a restaurant with just one meal on the menu and you’re allergic to the main course: would you order it?
Well, this particular meal isn’t healthy.
A sheriff elected by soliciting campaign cash is corruption waiting to happen. Even if the sheriff is 100% honest, he – sheriffs are almost all men – is in a perilous position of seeking money from people who might later run afoul of the law. Donations, after all, are public record.
Further, an elected sheriff wouldn’t be as qualified as his police academy-trained subordinates who worked up through the ranks. The sheriff could well be a county commissioner forced out by term limits who seeks another office but has never held a top police rank.
In a job like policing, staff respect is key to success. Imagine a general who never marched or an admiral who has never been to sea – not a respected leader.
A good rule of thumb is to elect for posts requiring generalists with good judgment but appoint qualified officials who require specific training and abilities. Who would want an elected brain surgeon?
Moreover, unlike other county offices, the amendment would bar term limits for the sheriff. All he’d need to stick around forever is votes, not qualifications, because the amendment would bar the county from ever setting professional requirements.
The measure would remove from Miami-Dade voters some power we got more than 60 years ago when we adopted a charter that allowed us to structure our own government for Florida’s biggest county. This measure would erase several upgrades we’ve made in the cookie-cutter format that small Florida counties must follow.
We now choose our 35 local police chiefs and county police director based on professional qualifications, often after careful searches demanding specific criteria. Why placed them under the thumb of an amateur elected sheriff?
Of course, by sheer luck any elected sheriff might do well and any local police chief might stumble. But odds are high that a police professional, carefully chosen, will do a whole lot better than a professional politician who needs a job.
The question is not honesty but ability. Generally, a well-trained person who has worked up through a specialty is going to be a whole lot better than an outsider who parachutes in.
Moreover, county government now can remove a weak police director immediately. An elected sheriff could only be removed by voters at the next election that might be years of incompetent policing away.
There’s no good reason for any Miami-Dade voter to support this flawed ballot question. Vote no on Amendment 10.