MIAMI — To fight crime in the Edgewater neighborhood, police have traded in their uniforms for a sexier look: shorts, tight blouses and a come-hither smile. Some officers have parked their patrol cars to lean up against lampposts. Others not posing as prostitutes may be packing their service revolvers under the shabby clothes of a vagrant.
"You see the homeless people out there? Well, many of those guys with shopping carts are my guys," said Miami police Lt. Mario Garcia. "Male and female. And I put officers out there as flower vendors, gardeners and street sweepers too."
According to Garcia, the undercover operations--along with more traditional policing--are helping to turn around a once-grand neighborhood blighted by poverty and neglect. Crime in Edgewater and the adjacent Wynwood section is down 44% from five years ago, according to police statistics. Abandoned houses used as crack dens have been demolished, street lights have been turned up, and--at long last in this historic neighborhood straddling Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown--the renaissance may be underway.
But using both male and female officers as decoys to conduct sting operations aimed at men soliciting prostitutes also has sparked controversy, in part because of the who's-who credentials of some of those arrested. Among those nabbed for allegedly soliciting sex on the street are a pro football player, a county judge and--in just the last five weeks--a prominent priest, a high-ranking police officer and a school board official.
The arrest July 5 of the Rev. Patrick H. O'Neill, a former university president serving as chairman of the Miami Archdiocese evangelical program, caused a public outcry over the ethics of sting operations and the detailed coverage of his case by local news media.
But Garcia, commander of the neighborhood police substation, asserted that the crime crackdown sends a message. "I want the public to know that people are tired of these folks. We take no pleasure in arresting high-profile people. But if you're coming into the neighborhood looking for cheap sex, we're going to get you."
In the last three years, Garcia said, area police have made more than 1,500 misdemeanor arrests involving prostitution. Lately, the average number of arrests per sting operation has fallen from 20 to about six, Garcia said, an indication that "people know we're out there."
Under a vehicle impoundment program in which accused "johns" must pay a flat $1,000 fee to get their cars back, the stings also pump cash into the city's general fund.
"I feel pretty safe" here, said Sergio Guadix, administrator of Edgewater's Neighborhood Enhancement Team, a city agency. "And three, four years ago, I don't know if I would have felt that way."
But John DeLeon, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, scoffs at the notion that police stings have anything to do with upgrading the neighborhood. Rather, he said, gentrification does.
Moreover, DeLeon said, "it is unconscionable to have police officers standing out there wearing provocative clothing, clearly there to be picked up. That's enticement, maybe entrapment.
"Besides," added DeLeon, a lawyer, "prostitution should not be criminalized."
Also troubled by police stings is local resident Reginald A. Richardson, a Miami-Dade County civil court judge. He was one of those stung.
"I have gone through two years of hardship, the embarrassment of guilt by association, and a whole lot of money," said Richardson. After two trials, he was acquitted of charges that he offered an undercover cop $20 for a sexual favor. He faces an October reprimand before the state Supreme Court for violating the judicial code by telling arresting officers he was a "pro-police" judge. He is running for reelection this fall.
Richardson, 51, said he supports efforts to clean up Edgewater and even approves of undercover operations. "Prostitution is the tip of the iceberg. It segues into drug traffic, strong-armed robbery. So I'm all for stings."
In his case, however, Richardson insists that he was entrapped by a female police officer who seemed to be in distress and waved as he drove by one evening in 1998. "I stop and help people even when my wife and kids are in the car. And I am frustrated by the notion that I can no longer do that."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.