The Miami Herald
FLORIDA — Police partners may seem like a myth to most law enforcement officers in South Florida, but with cop killings surging across the nation, some top state and local officials say it's time to resurrect the practice.
In the aftermath of the shooting of two Broward Sheriff's Office deputies in a five-day span last month, some say having a partner is the best way to keep officers safe on dangerous streets with bold, well-armed criminals.
"Everyone hopping about by themselves is a recipe for disaster," said David Murrell, executive director of the state Police Benevolent Association. "If there were two officers to a car, maybe what happened to those two deputies wouldn't have happened."
But the cost to pair patrol officers would be too expensive and there aren't enough officers to carry it out, local police department heads say.
The standard in Miami-Dade and Broward counties for years has been for officers and deputies to ride solo as they patrol streets and respond to calls. Even in high-crime areas, most go it alone and hope for speedy backup if needed.
That bucks a nationwide trend in most large metropolitan areas, which generally deploy two-man teams. New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles all partner officers.
Even in Florida, large cities like Jacksonville and Orlando have some teams who ride two to a car, particularly in high-crime areas and on overnight shifts.
"I don't know if that's the right answer or not, but it couldn't hurt," said Dick Brickman, president of Broward's Police Benevolent Association. "We have to do something to protect our officers. We're the war zone in Broward County right now."
In Fort Lauderdale, officers can ask to ride with a partner, but no mandatory partners are assigned.
The issue comes down to staffing and money, Miami Police Chief John Timoney said. Northern states try to have four to five officers for every 1,000 residents, while Miami-Dade and Broward employ only half that number.
Assigning one officer per car is cheaper and allows for cities to better deploy an already limited number of officers, Timoney said.
The one-man policy is not likely to change as local governments struggle to get a handle on budget cuts mandated by the state Legislature earlier this year. Many elected officials blame the financial hardships on the cost of law enforcement and union contracts.
Timoney said public officials levy taxes to support law enforcement.
"They have the money to do it up north. Down here, you get what you pay for," said Timoney, who worked in New York for nearly 30 years. "Right now we are in a bad period."
While cities look to shave costs, officers are being gunned down at an alarming rate this year.
The number of law enforcement officers killed in the United States in 2007 from Jan. 1 to June 30 eclipsed 100 for the first time in almost three decades, according to a study released last month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
That's a 44 percent increase over the same period last year.
No agency in South Florida has felt the disturbing increase more than BSO, which has had three deputies killed in the past year and several deputies suffer life-threatening injuries on duty.
Still, no one could have predicted such a tragic week for BSO.
On Aug. 6, Deputy Maury Hernandez was shot in the head during a routine traffic stop. He remains in critical condition at Memorial Regional Hospital.
A few days later, Sgt. Chris Reyka was shot several times while running the license plate of a suspicious car parked behind a Walgreens in Pompano Beach. The 18-year veteran died at the scene.
At Reyka's funeral, some wondered if an extra set of eyes and hands would have been able to prevent the incidents from happening.
In 1995, law enforcement officials lobbied for a state law that would require cities to give patrol officers partners.
Cities and counties lobbied successfully to water down the bill, known as the Jeffrey Tackett Law Enforcement Safety Act.
It was named after a Pinellas County police officer who was killed in 1993 while responding to an emergency call. Tackett, 28, rode alone and backup didn't arrive soon enough to save him.
The safety act in his honor did little to improve the conditions for officers who patrol alone.
Pinellas County mandated officers call for backup even on routine calls.
Fort Lauderdale police and BSO have a similar policy of dispatching another unit on traffic stops, but many cancel the help, one BSO deputy said. Fort Lauderdale officers are not allowed to cancel backup at night.
In Coral Springs, officers must ask for backup.
"I don't see how the guys down here work by themselves," said Ed Wright, who recently retired after working 30 years in New York, New Jersey and Florida.
Wright, 59, helps run a law enforcement accessory shop in Davie, but may not have made it to retirement if he patrolled alone, he told a group of wide-eyed Broward officers recently.
Wright chased a suspect into a New Jersey warehouse, but fell through a hole in the floor and plummeted 14 feet to the ground. He couldn't move.
When he looked up, a gun was pointing in his face. A gunshot rang out in the deserted warehouse. Wright closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was still alive. His partner had shot the gunman.
"Having a partner absolutely saved my life," he said.
Copyright 2007 Miami Herald
Fla. officials push for police partners