On July 26th, 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his waning months as president; Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the music charts; baseball Yankee, Mickey Mantle would become the home run champ while most of the south still practiced strict segregation based on race.
Meanwhile, Dade County was hiring an unlikely new rookie cop.
Downtown Miami was dark and quiet at 10:50 p.m. Thick with fog, the summer night air was like breathing pea soup. I parked my stick-shift, 1955 green Pontiac in a parking lot free to county employees, and walked toward the 28-story courthouse, the only building with lights on. It was the tallest structure in Florida until 1967.
July 26th, 1960, would become a memorable day in the life of this unfocused violinist who needed a real job to support an 18 year-old wife and a new baby on the way. The application for police officer sailed through the system unchallenged. Here I was wearing an over-sized bus-driver’s blue uniform denoting me as a rookie, age 21. Looking to the sky, I marveled at the pyramid summit of this mighty building in downtown Miami that housed the county jail and other administrative offices and courts. It would be my pre-hire employment venue for two weeks along with two other rookies, older than me,
The last job I ever wanted would be carrying a gun and barking orders to people twice my age, or worse, arresting them for breaking laws. I felt like a little boy playing grown-up.
The courthouse was my first step into the cop world. Yes, I was nervous and unsure of myself, but the pay would be good, as was job security. Thank goodness for my stepfather, Bernie the bookie, an old friend of mobster Meyer Lansky, who had connections in the Dade County Sheriff’s Department.
I exited the elevators at the 19th floor, watching cops hustling to and fro. A large distinguished man, white haired and lumbering, Captain Noah Scott gave me a dutiful lecture then handed me over to an overweight officer from Texas who would show off his mighty brawn with inmates, for my benefit.
Wham, Whack, Zing, Ohhhh…the Texan was showing me the ropes, how to calm an inmate, a drunk teen, and ordered him to bend naked and show his stuff. Never can tell where those weapons might be.
Maybe I can work for a grocery store, a car wash, or better yet a symphony orchestra. This wasn’t for me. But I was only twenty-one with two mouths to feed. It was my job to stand tall and suck it up.
The inmate floors were separated by race and gender. Blacks were not to comingle with whites. These were the times when blacks were not permitted on Miami Beach at night without a work permit. All of Miami was segregated, but I thought that was normal.
Throughout the cell blocks, noises, voices and smells were unpleasant to say the least.
After two weeks at the jail, I spent eight weeks in the police academy, where I ended up wearing a badge. My first position as a cop was walking the beat at the airport, blowing whistles and writing parking tickets.
Eventually, I was assigned to the Sunny Isles section of North Miami Beach, which bordered the ocean and a hundred motels. I didn’t write many tickets. Most cops wrote at least 50 to 100 a month, I wrote about ten. I got my butt chewed by Sgt. Butler. So I started hiding behind bushes along the highway at the end of the month, catching speeders, to bolster my numbers. In one instance, I felt so guilty ticketing newlyweds, I paid their breakfast check at IHOP.
One evening, around 3 a.m., I chased after a speeding car, weaving until it smashed into a light pole. The streets were barren, but I called in the accident and rushed to the driver. He was pinned behind the wheel, moaning, drunk and slippery from blood, trying to get him out. Finally, as I lowered him on the sidewalk, he looked me directly into the eyes. It was his death moment. I’ll never forget feeling a body going limp in my arms. I never knew the man, but I cried anyway.
This wasn’t the movies. It was reality.
I went on to enjoy a wonderful career, working with the finest human beings on the planet. I grew up, so-to-speak, and began working in Homicide in 1966 and eventually heading the Homicide Bureau as a captain. The career spanned thirty years and four crashed marriages.
I witnessed the social and professional changes that took place in the profession over 30 years. It was not all pleasant, particularly dealing with riots, hatred, and ambushing police officers. I’ll never forget the worst race riots in the history of the south, following a “Not-Guilty” verdict for five officers who were charged with beating a man to death…who happened to be black.
It was unfathomable, to think that I, a career police officer, would be in a position to arrest fellow cops. Alas, someone had to do it. Gut wrenching to be sure.
It all began that summer night, 60 years ago in muggy downtown Miami, at the 28-story courthouse, July 26, 1960.
Happy 60th anniversary to Bob McGavock as well. Sadly, Herb Overly has passed on.
The whole story can be found in my memoir book, “From Violins to Violence.” Contact me for signed copies.