Retired Miami-Dade Police Officer Recounts a Bygone Era, and His Brush with President Kennedy

Security was tight at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. President John F. Kennedy was in town and scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at a fundraising dinner for Senator George Smathers, inside the glitzy hotel, on March 10, 1962.

Miami-Dade police officer Jack Kahn, a four-year veteran, had a day off, but he was called in by his supervisor because more security was needed for the perimeter of the hotel. Officer Kahn was assigned to a spot in the rear, near the kitchen entrance and close to the dumpsters. It was midday and hotter and muggier than usual for early spring, even by South Florida standards. The stench of trash wafted in the air, and Officer Kahn’s uniform was saturated with sweat. After standing for several hours, he sat down on a sturdy milk crate to rest his legs.

A lengthy motorcade stopped near the kitchen service driveway, and President Kennedy, with his Secret Service contingent, emerged. Officer Kahn rose to his feet. The agents gathered around the president in a diamond formation, and they walked briskly towards the rear entrance, but as they passed the frazzled young officer, the charismatic young president stopped in front of him, and exclaimed, “You look like you just came out of the ocean!” The president then asked him if he needed a drink. When Officer Kahn answered yes, the president invited him to his suite. The air-conditioning was on full blast and Officer Kahn went from overheated to freezing as he gulped down a tall glass of water. As he drank, the president wrote on a piece of Fontainebleau stationary, “To my favorite deputy sheriff, thank you for taking care of me, your friend, President John F. Kennedy.”

The interaction was one of many colorful moments of Officer Kahn’s 12-year career that spanned from 1958 to 1970. Now 88 and living in suburban Chicago, Mr. Kahn recently reminisced about the bygone era, prior to the advent of high-tech, big data, and surveillance, that transformed policing and reshaped policies and procedures.

“Back then there were no forensics, and it was before Miranda rights, so things were done very differently than today, there is a lot more to the job now, officers have to use computers and there is a lot of technology in their work, stuff that didn’t exist when I was an officer,” Mr. Kahn said.

He said his most impactful case during his career was the bust of an armed robbery and burglary ring that expanded into Broward County. Seven men were arrested, responsible for over 10 armed robberies, including a bank, and 50 burglaries, and the theft of 75 cars. Mr. Kahn and several other officers worked for months to bring the perpetrators to justice. In the process, they spent hours interviewing victims and witnesses and following leads. It was gumshoe work at its best, a team of officers scouring scenes and comparing notes. “We got a nice letter from the sheriff, and it was put in our personnel files.”

His career with the department had an inauspicious start. He had not yet graduated from the police academy when he was plucked out of a training class to go undercover as an inmate. He was selected for the assignment because he grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and had that in common with a man who was arrested on murder charges and being held at the county jail. Officer Kahn was assigned to infiltrate and get the suspect to open up about committing the murders. Such assignments are a thing of the past. Trainees are not considered for actual police work before they graduate from the academy, and even after graduation, they undergo additional training before being considered for any undercover work.

“My first day in, I didn’t just want to rush up, so I observed him,” Mr. Kahn said. “The next day, I was standing in line for breakfast, spotted him in line, and I sat next to him. He asked me what I was in for and I told him armed robbery. I asked him what he was in for and he said triple homicide, but also said he was going to beat it because they didn’t have any evidence. Then we started talking about Brooklyn, I told him I went to Madison High School and he said he went to Lincoln. There were several times I tried to push the conversation back to his case, but he wasn’t having it, didn’t say anything. I felt that he would never tell me anything, so later, I gave the word to the guards, and they got me out of there.”

And then there was the call for service involving a pelican in the road.

Officer Kahn was provided a new, unmarked 1959 Ford sedan for his patrols. The captain who assigned the car gave him one instruction—do not get a single scratch on the vehicle. Officer Kahn set off on his shift, which started mid-day, at 3 p.m., and ended at 11 p.m. His first call was a traffic jam on the A1A in Miami, near the beach. When he arrived on scene, he saw a pelican in the road. The bird appeared lifeless, but after he picked it up and placed it in the back of the sedan, the animal started fluttering wildly and defecating all over the upholstery. “The smell was a horrible, terrible stench,” Mr. Kahn said. “I went to a gas station later and tried to get the smell out with a hose and scrubbing, but that didn’t work. I had another call for a DUI, and the guy that was arrested refused to get in the back of the car because of the smell.” The next day at the station, the captain yelled at him and then suspended him for three days but made him come in each day during his suspension to scrub down the inside of the car.

“When I look back at my career, it was the best job that I ever had,” Mr. Kahn said. “I treated everyone the same, with respect, and it was rewarding to help people out.”

When he was six, he contracted polio. The vaccine had not yet been developed. Doctors drained fluid from his spine, and he was put in an “iron lung” which stimulated his breathing. He recovered from the disease, but it did leave his right arm and right leg shorter than his left limbs. He said it miraculously gave him more strength in the affected arm, and it improved his throwing velocity for baseball. “It was like a miracle,” he said.

He went into the Navy, at 17-years-old, forging his father’s signature. But after only three months, got an honorable discharge due to medical reasons—his elbow was giving him problems, likely related to his bout with polio as a child. He returned to New York to finish his senior year of high school. He stayed with his sister, because his parents had moved to Miami.

He also had a brief professional baseball career, playing right field for the Brooklyn Dodgers rookies, the equivalent of a major league organization’s double-A team. Injuries continued to plague him, short-circuiting his career.

He then attended Ithaca College in New York, and while there, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, in 1955, at the end of the Korean War. He went to basic training, but after eight weeks, again received an honorable discharge. When he got out, he reunited with his parents in Miami. His mother suggested that he try the police department. He passed the sergeant’s exam in 1963. He got married at the age of 30 and started a family while in the department. After he retired from the department in 1970, he moved his family to Chicago, where his wife was from. He started a steel processing company, and oversaw it for 25 years. Due to the financial crisis of 2008, he had to close business. He became a security guard at Skokie Hospital in a suburb of Chicago, and worked that job for a decade before retiring.

“My time with the department prepared me for everything in life, I’m so thankful for the opportunity.”

Originally published at https://www.miamidade.gov/global/news-item.page?Mduid_news=news1704217604703530

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