Militant Miami citizens claim credit as south Florida crime rates fall

If Miami's crime problem has portrayed this Sunbelt city as a modern-day Dodge City, then the Miami Citizens Against Crime (MCAC) might be characterized as a modern-day posse that means business.

When crime rates seemed to eclipse the sun here, giving this city as much ink in negative headlines as it got in glamorous travel ads, community leaders really pulled together. Their show of concern was more than just a public-relations ploy to gloss over the crime problem, which was threatening Miami's crucial tourism industry.

The MCAC, sponsored by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, embodies what the Miami Herald called ''a new militant attitude among citizens fed up with lawbreakers.''

And if the community's militancy was proportionate to the amount of crime south Florida was up against, the group was necessarily radical. The area had become known a couple of years ago as a drug-running port of entry rife with violent spinoff crimes, a haven for refugees whose massive numbers seemed to pose a law-enforcement crisis, and a civil-rights problem that had erupted in violence.

While problems still exist - witness the Overtown disturbance in December and continued narcotics arrests - statistics released this month show crime decreased in 1982 in the south Florida area. The MCAC takes credit for this downturn, which amounts, for example, to an 11 percent decrease in violent crimes during 1982 in the City of Miami. And criminal-justice officials concede that support from the community - most notably the MCAC - is responsible.

Composed of the city's most powerful business and government leaders - 180 individual members and 150 civic group members - the MCAC has managed a sophisticated campaign to turn the crime situation around.

The group commanded an unprecedented amount of influence for a private citizens' group - going to the heart of power at the local and state level - and straight to the White House.

Securing victories at all three levels the MCAC brought a swarm of attention to the south Florida area - bringing in a vice-presidential task force that beefed up every federal law-enforcement agency in the area, brought in extra judges, attorneys, and support personnel and increased capacity at local jails and state and federal prisons.

This program is being duplicated in 12 other areas around the country. Further, the MCAC won an increase of 1 cent on the dollar in the state sales tax to upgrade criminal-justice programs and pushed local governments for more funds for law enforcement. The group has even targeted schoolchildren, advocating ''character education'' courses to emphasize citizen responsibilities.

''I've never seen a group like this one before . . . getting a mission accomplished with such ability and savvy. . . . We've worked closely with them and they've given us guidance in the community, and without their work I don't think this (the task force programs) would have been possible,'' says Charles Rinkevich, on-site coordinator for the vice-president's South Florida Task Force.

''This community was very discouraged a year and a half ago by polls indicating they (residents and businesses) were ready to leave in huge numbers. Through our work those numbers have changed,'' says Adm. Van Edsall, a retired US Navy officer who is executive director of MCAC.

''Our primary objective (is) to let people know something is going on that would help them. The change in attitude is a lot more dramatic than change in crime rate. But people have gathered hope,'' he says, citing a survey done for Flagler Federal Savings and Loan which showed community attitudes had changed regarding crime.

The survey, done by Dr. Harold Peters, a Miami market researcher and psychologist, polled at random 200 south Florida residents in 1981, before MCAC efforts had begun, and again in early 1983. Dr. Peters says that in 1981, 39 percent said they were so concerned about crime in south Florida they would consider leaving, 48 percent were seriously concerned, 10 percent moderately concerned, and 2.5 percent showed little or no concern.

This concern seemed to be in remission by 1983 when 9 percent responded with such concern about crime that they would consider leaving, 32 percent expressed serious concern, 33 percent moderate concern, and 25 percent little or no concern.

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