Great reporting by the Miami New Times on the city’s hyper-aggressive Tactical Narcotics Team, which goes by the charmingly subtle moniker “TNT.”
Suddenly, flashing lights bathe the front lawn in red and blue. More than a dozen cops in light-gray polos, dark-gray cargo pants, and black vests flood out of the Chrysler and other unmarked cars, storming through the front gate with guns drawn. Dante drops his beer. Before he can react, a beefy cop tackles him, knocking down his 1-year-old, who screams in terror.
The police, all members of an elite Miami-Dade unit called the Tactical Narcotics Team — TNT for short — arrest Dante and his friends, and haul Khalid and Alexis off to jail as well.
The Levels were just three of the 112 people in Liberty City booked that weekend as part of a TNT operation cheekily dubbed “Santa’s Helper,” which the Miami Herald and local TV stations ate up as a feel-good story about cops keeping the inner city safe — an especially juicy tale when coupled with video of the widow of a slain officer handing out 500 toys to poor children. The Levels’ arrest led the 6 p.m. telecasts, with CBS 4 reporter Peter D’Oench hailing the MDPD for “getting kids in the neighborhood to see… the human side of the officers who love to interact with the children.” A Herald story, meanwhile, offered that the “streets of northwest Miami-Dade [will be] safe for when Santa comes to town.”
However, a two-month investigation by New Times has found that Santa’s Helper was a colossal waste of police resources. Of the 112 suspects arrested, 73 people were charged only with misdemeanor pot possession. The vast majority of the busted pot smokers were either released within 24 hours or avoided jail by promising to show up in court. Of the 73 alleged tokers, 68 of them — including Dante Level and his siblings — had no violent criminal record. If they were guilty of anything, it was smoking a joint on their own front porch.
Police say TNT, a 31-officer team that focuses on aggressive, low-level drug busts such as Santa’s Helper, is vital because their work prevents more serious drug and gang violence. Even as other units specializing in cargo and auto theft were disbanded last month to save money for the cash-strapped department, the brass left TNT and its $3 million budget untouched.
“This is a great way to capture a cross section of robbers, burglars, thieves, and dopers who shoot kids and cops and will openly spray a corner with bullets,” says Maj. Charles Nanney, head of the Miami-Dade Narcotics Bureau. “Cocaine, marijuana, and heroin availability at the street level poses the greatest threat.”
But neighborhood activists and some criminologists say letting an aggressive unit loose on small-time users does more to alienate black neighborhoods than it does to end violent crime. Santa’s Helper, they say, is a perfect illustration of how a unit with a history of corruption — and a mound of complaints about excessive force — has lost the War on Drugs. In recent years, three officers who worked with TNT, but not assigned to the unit full-time, were busted in public corruption probes. Meanwhile, 14 current squad members have combined for 40-plus internal affairs probes.
We’ve seen this over and over again. These tactics are typically justified on the argument that they’re only used on the nastiest, most dangerous drug distributors. Time and again, when local media looks into what these raids typically turn up, they find vanishingly few weapons, significant drug busts, or felony charges. In the case above, three people were charged for possessing the same joint.
The one difference with the TNT unit is that, as the story indicates, while it was initially set up to target criminals with violent histories, busting low-level offenders with the shock-and-awe bullshit is now stated policy. So they’ve dispensed with the pretense. If a few toddlers and grandmas get in the way of scaring the vocabulary out of the city’s pot smokers, well, that’s a price these cops are willing to pay.
But I suppose there’s no questioning the results. As I understand it, Miami is now basically drug-free.