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Keys Sheriff Rick Ramsay on mission to clean up crime and trash

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay travels the island chain armed not only with his duty gun, but also five different colors of spray paint.

The Florida Keys’ top cop never knows when or where he will encounter graffiti, which he says most people perceive as markers for crime, violence and gangsters.

“Green spray paint is for the garbage dumps; there is a lot of graffiti on dumpsters,” said Ramsay, 48. “Silver is for guard rails and electric poles. Beige is for concrete power poles. And black and white cover most building colors.”

Since taking office in January 2013, Ramsay has made his zero tolerance policy on graffiti, as well as absconded shopping carts left scattered in neighborhoods, part of a proactive initiative to clean up Monroe County to help fight crime.

“It’s the broken window theory,” he said last week while standing in the parking lot of the San Pedro Catholic Church in Islamorada after an hour of picking up trash along a mile-plus stretch of the Overseas Highway that was adopted by the Sheriff’s Office.

“Cleaner neighborhoods are better, safer neighborhoods — and dirty, disheveled neighborhoods are more crime ridden,” he said. “I’ve always believed in the theory.”

Ramsay practices what he preaches. Of the 65 or so cleanups both large and small that have been held from Key Largo to Key West during his first 1 1/2 years in office, Ramsay has attended most of them as an active participant.

During the recent Islamorada cleanup, he picked up a rusted knife with garbage grabber tongs. Ramsay agreed it was necessary to call in crime scene technicians: “It’s got blood all over it.”

“You’re kidding me?” said Chad O’Neal, a county jail inmate who was picking up trash alongside the sheriff. “Is it a filet knife?”

Ramsay, sweating profusely from the heat and humidity, smirked as he replied: “Yeah, I’m kidding you. There’s no blood on it.”

Matthew Dalton, 19, was rewarded for his time with the discovery of a crumpled $50 bill that he tried to give Ramsay. “No, you keep it,” Ramsay said. “See, doing this brings good karma.”

They were part of a volunteer group of about 20 people that included Sheriff’s Capt. Corey Bryan, three lieutenants, a detective sergeant, several patrol deputies, six inmates, members of the community and kids on summer break from school.

“This is a good opportunity for inmates and people in the community to see my officers as regular people, their neighbors,” Ramsay said. “Most interaction people have with law enforcement, we’re telling them to stop doing something. We’re giving them a ticket, telling them to break up a party or taking them to jail. Or they’re involved in a crash or a victim of a crime. People are not happy to see us because something is going bad in their lives.”

The garbage collected in Islamorada last week filled the back of a sheriff’s department pickup truck. But for bigger jobs, like a recent cleanup at an area known as “Jet Ski Beach” along Card Sound Road in North Key Largo, the sheriff’s big new $50,000 dump truck was used to transport the ton of collected trash to a waste management site.

“My big Isuzu landscape truck,” Ramsay said. “It’s a seven-person aluminum body dump truck. I tell people you have to have the equipment to do the job.”

Ramsay emphasized that criminals, not taxpayers, footed the bill for the truck: “I used drug money obtained from drug dealers in seized forfeiture cases.”

Detention deputies use the dump truck for weekly roadside cleanups conducted by inmates detained for nonviolent crimes. The Juvenile Programs Unit also uses the truck to take program kids to do similar cleanups to help satisfy their community service requirements, said Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

For large graffiti coverup jobs for which spray paint won’t do the trick, Ramsay has provided his substations with five-gallon buckets of recycled beige paint that he got for free from waste management.

O’Neal, 29, a Key Largo resident who is serving a sentence for violation of probation stemming from previous theft charges, said he was happy to be picking up trash because it got him out of jail for some sunshine and “I can give back something to my community.”

But Ramsay conceded it was not as easy a sell to those who work for the sheriff’s department. “There was a lot of skepticism: ‘It’s not our jobs. What does this have to do with the sheriff’s office?’ ” Ramsay said.

But the griping has lessened as the cleanups have become a mostly accepted part of the job for his high command, and they have become a way for deputies and other department personnel to get extra recognition. Many officers pitch in when they are off duty.

Ramsay could not make it to a May cleanup organized by Sgt. Tom Kiffney and Deputy Dave Minor at Jet Ski Beach. But Major Lou Caputo and Capt. Don Fanelli did, both getting sweaty as they picked up beer bottles and other trash just thrown in the mangroves by partiers who come mostly from the mainland to enjoy the beauty of the Keys waters, then leave behind a disgusting mess.

In addition to massive numbers of Heineken and Corona beer bottles, there were soiled diapers, food containers and mystery debris. And O’Neal found candles and the skeletons of birds and other small animals, likely for santaria rituals.

Gary Kresser, who owns the vacant property, was overwhelmed by the effort to return the shoreline to its pristine condition. “This is beyond the call of duty,” he said. “I thank you all.”

But to Ramsay, it is everyone’s duty to take pride in the Keys. “This is not the Rick Ramsay Sheriff Office Cleanup Show,” he said. Part of his effort has been to partner with other agencies, Outward Bound and community groups, such as Rotary Clubs and Chamber of Commerces.

“Since the sheriff has become the sheriff, the attitude Keys-wide has changed between the officers and public works, and now we all work together,” John Glista, the Upper Keys supervisor for Monroe County Public Works, said during the cleanup at Jet Ski Beach.

Last year, Deputy Linda Kohout responded to a report of people illegally camping in a wooded area just south of the Bahia Honda Bridge and found them near an area piled with trash. She encouraged the illegal campers to clean up the site, and they did, carrying 1,200 pounds of garbage and debris to the side of the road — where it was picked up by a company contracted by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The Sheriff’s Office dive team has conducted cleanups by water, including one at Crocker Reef, a popular fishing and diving site, where a lot of fishing line and related debris was removed from the coral. They also conducted another cleanup at the sandbar, a popular offshore party spot along Whale Harbor Channel, after a busy holiday weekend.

In Marathon, 180 shopping carts were found during two roundups in neighborhoods. “Holy crap, we were shocked,” Ramsay said. “It may not sound like a big deal, but they make things look trashy, could roll into the streets, and they cost money back to the consumer.”

And Ramsay and one of his captains once dug through an illegal dump site on Big Coppitt, trying to find receipts or other evidence of the culprit. Some items were sent to the crime lab to see whether latent fingerprints could be lifted.

“We spent more time than we probably should have, but I was so angry how much trash was there,” Ramsay said. “We weren’t successful, but we made efforts to find out who did it. We wanted to send a message.”

In the past year, overall crime has fallen by 12.5 percent in the Keys. There is no way to determine how much effect, if any, the cleanup initiative has had on the decline. But Ramsay thinks it has played some role: “I have to believe there is some reduction in crime due to all the work we’ve done to make the Keys better, cleaner and safer.”

This story was originally published June 11, 2014 10:28 PM.

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