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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

Stop!--Or I'll Skate!

Miami Beach put police on wheels to connect them with people. 'It's unusual. But I think it's effective,' one says.

April 23, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI BEACH — When beat cop Tony Lamacchio pulled on his in-line skates for the first time, he was pretty sure he'd be a flop. And he was. "Bad" is the word he uses to describe his debut on wheels several weeks ago.

Front Page Cafe manager Steve Trowl said that when he first saw Lamacchio pass by, "Frankly, I was worried. He was terrible. He could hardly move and he was looking down. So he couldn't see if anything was happening."

What's worse, Lincoln Road Mall is no place for uncool. This 11-block strip of restaurants, art galleries and Art Deco collectible shops is a major East Coast proving ground for trend and style, especially on skates.

Young women in skin-tight spandex slalom through the outdoor diners and tourists while well-toned men in shorts and tank tops roll by hand in hand. Teens in big pants perform tricks off the curbs. In this crowd, you want to know what you're doing.

Lamacchio was assigned to Miami Beach police bicycle patrol, and had not skated since he was a kid. But he volunteered anyway, and persevered through some embarrassing public pratfalls, convinced that officers on skates could provide security and build rapport with other skaters, especially teens. And he improved.

Now Lamacchio and five other uniformed officers are rollercops, among the first in the nation.

"We get a lot of double takes. And we see people laughing," said Lamacchio, 34, a former lifeguard and barefoot water-skier who joined the Police Department four years ago. "I don't think people believe what they're seeing. It is unusual. But I think it's effective. People are more friendly."

In recent years, police departments around the country have experimented with ways to get beat cops out of their squad cars and in touch with people in the neighborhoods where they work. Patrolling on foot, on horseback and on bicycles is common.

But few departments have put officers on skates, in part because they seem too vulnerable. How could an officer maintain his balance in a scuffle, chase a suspect through a grassy field or run up stairs?

Easy. Many in-line skate companies now make a model in which the wheel assembly snaps off the boot in seconds. "These are no different than hiking boots," said Lamacchio, popping off the eight wheels and jogging down the mall to demonstrate his mobility.

No California towns--not even such skating meccas as Santa Monica or Venice--have cops on in-line skates. But in New York City, unarmed rangers on wheels began rolling through Central Park two summers ago. And last summer, the city of Montreal assigned a skating officer to patrol the waterfront. Police in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett also have experimented with rollercops.

One of the nation's pioneer rollercops is Ft. Lauderdale Police Sgt. Bill Johnston, who four years ago began patrolling this city's famed beachfront. "It's been accepted wholeheartedly from the git-go," said Johnston, 41. "With skates on, you kind of become more public-oriented, more approachable. People want to stop you, talk, take your picture. It often seems more public relations work than police work."

In some situations, however, being on skates is an advantage--surprising car thieves in parking lots, for example. "I've broken up a couple of fights, made lots of arrests, lot of traffic work," Johnston said. During a crowded spring break, Johnston said, he glided up to a car full of gang members about to pounce on some rivals and pulled them out of the car and cuffed them before he even thought about snapping his skates off.

Cops on skates is such a new concept that few departments have standard operating procedures yet. Training officer Marty Drucker is writing the Miami Beach manual.

"We're not blind to the fact that there are some limitations," Drucker said. "The fact is, if police on skates are attacked, it's harder to fight and keep their balance." Martial arts experts are teaching combat techniques--what Drucker described as "basic common sense things: grab them and drag them down, or stomp on them with the skates."

Rollercops are drilled in snapping off their skates before approaching a suspect. Skating police also are to obey the same no-chase policy in effect for officers in cars and on bikes. Still, Lamacchio and other rollercops go to the firing range to practice shooting on wheels. "But you have to be in a stopped position," Drucker said.

Like all police officers, rollercops are outfitted in standard-issue gear. For Lamacchio, that adds up to 16 pounds worth of bulletproof vest, helmet, pads for elbows, knees and hands, his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, two extra ammunition clips, a can of pepper spray, handcuffs, a radio, a collapsible baton and a book of traffic citations.

For the merchants and regulars on Lincoln Road, rollercops add to the local color on a street where half the people look like wannabe fashion models and most of the rest already are famous. Actor Michael Caine runs a restaurant here, and first-name-only stars Madonna and Sly are locals.

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