By Michael E. Miller
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The 47-year-old Orlando-born businesswoman owns a home-cleaning firm with her mother, Shirley. She is dressed in a big, short-sleeved, Hawaiian-style shirt decorated with large red flowers, a pair of white walking shorts, and sneakers. Her dove-gray hair reaches to her midback, and she has the front pulled off her face. Home for the past 17 years has been the gray two-bedroom cottage with a red front door on NW Fourth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale's South Middle River, where she raised her son, Donald, now a 29-year-old computer engineer. Sparks looks like someone you'd run into picking her way through displays of ceramics and handmade baskets at a craft fair, not like the hard-ass anticrime commando she became about five years ago.
"It got so bad that you really couldn't drive through this area without 40 people out in the street blocking your way selling drugs," she says as she walks north on Fourth with Tiger tugging at his leash. Sparks says the dealers even gave her a nickname, "Cop Caller." She laughs about it. "If you got enough guts to stand up there and sell drugs in front of me," she says, "I have enough guts to call the cops."
South Middle River (bordered by Sunrise Boulevard, NE Fourth Avenue, Powerline Road, and the City of Wilton Manors) is a neighborhood of more than 2,000 pint-sized homes, many with stucco exteriors and terrazzo floors, built in the 1950s for retirees and seasonal visitors. By the 1990s, most of the retirees were gone, and people started renting out their houses. Haitian immigrants, attracted by the low rents, moved in. So did government-subsidized low-income renters. Drug dealers found South Middle River appealing too -- the enemy in what was to become a long, bitter, rear-guard action between residents and neighborhood drug hawkers.
Now, as the city faces a financial crisis that will slash $15 million from an already austere budget, residents of South Middle River such as Sparks fear that the battle they've waged to turn around their neighborhood will be undone.
Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Bruce Roberts proposes cutting 42 sworn police positions from his 500-member force, including eight officers and two police sergeants. The community police squad would be history. Cops on horseback would be put out to pasture. And the police presence on the streets of marginal neighborhoods like South Middle River would probably diminish markedly. The cuts would slash $6.8 million from the police budget, Roberts said in a memo to Acting City Manager Alan Silva on November 7. "This will return the department to staffing levels only slightly above the 1994 levels," Roberts said, "when the city earned the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of serious crime in the nation."
Residents fear that any cuts in the police force will translate to an increase in crime, and they're not ready to go back to the bad old days when their neighborhood was a major drug marketplace. "We're not having it," Sparks says.
The South Middle River Civic Association (SMRCA), along with groups from Middle River Terrace, Lake Ridge, Poinsettia Heights, Victoria Park, and Lauderdale Manor, are gearing up for a special meeting December 3, when city commissioners vote on the budget. They'll swamp commission chambers and pressure elected officials to rethink reducing the police force, promises SMRCA President Tony Pinto. "Crime is like a cancer," he says. "The minute you stop chemotherapy or radiation, it returns."
Sparks and other crime fighters in the neighborhood got some eager allies in the late 1990s, when a wave of gay men began buying into South Middle River, swelling the ranks of the SMRCA. Members started badgering the police to arrest dealers and pressing to have trash and abandoned vehicles removed. They drummed up support from their Haitian neighbors and secured a promise from the city to pave streets that hadn't been repaved since the development was built in the late 1950s. As the drug market heated up, they led antidrug marches and confronted drug dealers. Residents talked to the police daily, providing detailed descriptions of drug buyers and sellers. Several offered their homes for police surveillance.
The weapon of last resort: secession. At various times, when the city has failed to respond to them, community members threatened to drop out of Fort Lauderdale and join a more responsive Wilton Manors.
As a result of their warrior stance, the membership in SMRCA mushroomed from about 80 residents in 1999 to more than 450. And crime dropped. In 1996, there were 863 robberies, residential and business burglaries, and vehicle thefts in South Middle River, more than in most other neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale. By 2001, that number had plummeted to 391. Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Paul Kiley says those stats are solid evidence of a dramatic improvement in the quality of life in a neighborhood; robberies and thefts are the sort of crimes committed by drug users, he explains.
Although crime rose again in South Middle River to 526 incidents in 2002, Kiley says that it has dropped again by about 15 percent so far this year. The cops made a stunning 806 drug arrests in South Middle River from July 1, 2000, through November 7, 2003.