By Tim Norris
Beyond energetic disputes between New Englander and chief of security Ray Lavin and New Yorker and lieutenant Mike McHale over the baseball fortunes of the Red Sox and Yankees, about the only fighting that the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club security force sees might be a rare domestic dispute, a too-hearty party, rowdy teens, a disgruntled nanny, a missing garbage can or a fuss over where laborers park.
There is, Lavin and McHale say, no crime here.
Check the numbers. None.
And a big reason is who the security officers are, and the way they work, and how the neighborhood began, grew and operates.
They do have adventures, which they’re happy to relate on this recent morning in the main guardhouse off Federal Highway. Security alarms go off two or three times a day, some by accident. Residents lock themselves out or leave a door open or need a jump for a dead battery.
“One time, in a backyard, we found a python,” McHale says. “They turned it over to a zoo, and the next day it was on the news. They had three girls standing next to each other, holding the snake, and it was hanging down. It was like 12, 13 feet. Apparently somebody had it as a pet and released it.”
Another recent call took them to a backyard, looking for a possum in the pool, figuring it was dead.
The possum was swimming. The resident fished it out, and it dived back in. “It was doing laps,” McHale says. He extended a stick, the possum grabbed it, and the animal found new life on the golf course.
Now, Lavin says, they have pictures of everybody’s pets, online. If anyone finds a stray or a wild visitor, they can identify and return or remove it, some more carefully than others. They almost never, the guards say, find stray or wild people.
Gated, but not
By most gauges, Royal Palm is a gated community, 670 homes at latest count, from single-story Bermuda-style cottages to mansion compounds worthy of the Arabian Nights. Seeing a yacht club bristling with stupendous boats and a signature Jack Nicklaus golf course winding through, a visitor might expect a typical gated response: wary of the uninvited, hungry for privacy and amenities, prey to envy and stereotype, expecting security.
That “gated” description, though, doesn’t quite fit. There are, for starters, no gates. Although it’s rightfully called Boca Raton’s first community with guarded entry, all of Royal Palm’s streets still belong to the city, and some of the public come in to walk, run or roller-skate. Can’t criminals find their way in, too?
No. For finishers, there are the 20 men and women of the Royal Palm Improvement Association’s own security force.
Security has long been a growth industry, and 9/11 put it on steroids. In a lean time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the security guard and patrol services industry jumped from about 510,000 to nearly 580,000 — a trend that’s expected to grow.
The officers at Royal Palm, most veterans of big-city police forces or big-time private operations, were security before security was cool. The lasting difference is how they go about it.
The nerve center
At the western entrance just off Federal Highway, inside the guardhouse this recent morning, Boca Raton police and fire scanners crackle with activity.
This is a nerve center, and the brain stem is a console where officer Mike Crutcher, badge 402, architect and keeper of the database, is just sitting down to print out a view of the resident information screen and a field incident report.
The database instantly gives them residents’ telephone numbers, security contacts, lawn and pool service, caretaker, pest control, emergency contacts and reports on any and every incident and call to a house. “I’m computer savvy,” the chief says, “to where I can call Mike and say, ‘402, come up here, I need you.’ ”
Just now, a real-life parade presses past the guardhouse: the sedans and SUVs of residents, and the vans and trucks and trailers of services coming and going.
Says Sgt. Joe D’Onofrio: “We have a fuel company come in with three trucks, like, 30,000 gallons, just to fill up one of the yachts.”
Smile, you’re on camera
At that moment, Ralph Prescutti, the sergeant major, stands in the greeter’s spot at the open door on the arrival side, smiling, waving, bending to remark or answer.
“We’re saying hello, but we’re also getting their picture, and we keep it,” Prescutti says.
A picture of this place, and their service in it, is harder to snap. In moments, Lavin and McHale step into one of their white security vehicles and swing onto Royal Palm Way for a quick tour.
Arthur Vining Davis bought Addison Mizner’s celebrated Boca Raton Resort & Club and adjacent land and polo grounds, in 1958; Davis’ company, Arvida, launched a new high-end development. Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club grew from one-story cottages into multistory mansions, eventually overseen by the RPIA, which started its security force in 1984.
The settlement extends from gently curved roads on the mainland, fronting on the Intracoastal, to what residents call “the island,” actually three islands separated by canals, so that every house there gets a waterfront.
Officers know many of the contractors and most of the residents, and they know whom to call when they don’t: Officer Lafayette Pettiford.
“She just has that gift where she knows the families and the lawn crews and the pool guys,” McHale says. “We go to her, she knows people, they know her.”
Most also know Tommy Reichling. “We call him Tommy Panic,” McHale says. “He comes on the phone, you can hear him across the room. Most of our people have affectionate monikers. I’m L.T. or Mac. We have Joey Ice Cream (D’Onofrio), not to be mixed up with Joey Blue Eyes (Joe Gerrish).”
Give a shout out, they say, to the women in the office, Betty Cash and Cathie Jaquith, who handle much of the paperwork and keep in frequent touch.
Give kudos to the board of governors and to its security liaison, Lynne Chandler Novick, who give them everything they need. “They’re all part of security,” McHale says.
Give another shout to officer Evens Civil, who once rescued a disoriented woman found wandering on a nearby road when he used his Haitian background to speak with her in Creole.
Give thanks to all of the officers on duty, day and night, because they’ll give it back. Politely.
Trained and retrained in firearms, in administering oxygen, in CPR, as flaggers, they serve and protect, with an extra helping of serve. As Lavin says, “We leave the real police work to the real cops.” Still, they carry handcuffs and pepper spray, and they are skilled with a Glock 9 mm handgun, tucked into a modest pouch at one hip. They have never used one in the line of duty.
“We hope we never will,” Lavin says.
They are far more likely to manage parking for a big holiday party or deliver a paper to a resident in a wheelchair or check homes for those out of town.
At least one security car is constantly rolling, scanning for trouble or need, running through the house-check list. Officers are mobile (on foot, mountain bikes, vehicles) and, mostly, agile; just never hostile.
Police, without authority
“Unlike the police, we don’t have authority,” McHale says. “We can ask somebody how we can help them. We have to know when to back off. We also have a very good relationship with the Boca Police Department, and with the firefighters. Overall, we don’t have cowboys on this force. We were told that the turnover in security is 40 percent a year. We went 14 months without anybody leaving, and we’re proud of that.”
Most important, Lavin says, they are known. “Most police departments have to be reactive; we are pro-active,” he says, and McHale adds, “We develop relationships with the residents here.”
They can point to dozens of letters and e-mails, thanking them for their service.
They live, themselves, elsewhere in the area. Royal Palm’s home prices list mostly in the millions; three currently for sale, with a “reduced” tag, can be snapped up for $7.8 million, $6.5 million and $11 million.
Nearly all of these people have their own security systems. Most could afford their own security guards.
What the guards on actual duty have learned about the rich, though, is what they already knew from their years of policing everyone else.
“They’re just like you and me,” says Lavin, once a county deputy sheriff in Massachusetts and New York State. And McHale, a former New York City transit officer, adds: “They just have more money.”
Then he continues. “They’re used to getting their own way at times, and they can be difficult, but when I first started here, I was surprised at how nice and how generous they are with us.”
One new resident wanted to put up his own guardhouse. “Somebody here told him, ‘You don’t need to do that,’ ” Lavin says. Another resident suggested that the guards carry assault weapons.
We live, the men acknowledge, in a more nervous time. But both residents relented, reassured that they were as safe as anyone has a right to be. The best communication, the officers say, is still face-to-face.
Putting up gates, as board members have long said, only slows down traffic.
Residents learn that, at least in this corner of paradise, the Royal Palm’s low-key,
personal, concierge security works. Ú
In Coasting Along, our writers occasionally stop to reflect on life along the shore.