Miami Gardens / Opa-locka

In Miami Gardens, store video catches cops in the act

 

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

Earl Sampson has been stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years.

He’s been searched more than 100 times. And arrested and jailed 56 times.

Despite his long rap sheet, Sampson, 28, has never been convicted of anything more serious than possession of marijuana.

Miami Gardens police have arrested Sampson 62 times for one offense: trespassing.

Almost every citation was issued at the same place: the 207 Quickstop, a convenience store on 207th Street in Miami Gardens.

But Sampson isn’t loitering. He works as a clerk at the Quickstop.

So how can he be trespassing when he works there?

It’s a question the store’s owner, Alex Saleh, 36, has been asking for more than a year as he watched Sampson, his other employees and his customers, day after day, being stopped and frisked by Miami Gardens police. Most of them, like Sampson, are poor and black.

And, like Sampson, many of them have been cited for minor infractions, sometimes as often as three times in the same day.

Saleh was so troubled by what he saw that he decided to install video cameras in his store. Not to protect himself from criminals, because he says he has never been robbed. He installed the cameras — 15 of them — he said, to protect him and his customers from police.

Since he installed the cameras in June 2012 he has collected more than two dozen videos, some of which have been obtained by the Miami Herald. Those tapes, and Sampson’s 38-page criminal history — including charges never even pursued by prosecutors — raise some troubling questions about the conduct of the city’s police officers.

The videos show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.

“There is just no justifying this kind of behavior,’’ said Chuck Drago, a former police officer and consultant on police policy and the use of force. “Nobody can justify overstepping the constitution to fight crime.”

Repeated phone messages and emails to Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd and City Manager Cameron Benson asking for comment on this story were not returned.

Boyd did release a statement, saying that the department is committed to serving and protecting the citizens and businesses in the city.

But Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Florida, said that’s exactly what Boyd is NOT doing.

“Where is the police chief in all this? In a police department in a city this size, this kind of behavior could not escape his attention. Doesn’t the City Commission know that they are exposing the city to either massive liability for civil rights violations? Either that, or they are going to wake up one day and find the U.S. Department of Justice has taken over its police department.’’

Saleh and his attorney, Steve Lopez, are preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit, contending that the police department has routinely, under the direction of the city’s top leaders, directed its officers to conduct racial profiling, illegal stops and searches and other activities to cover up illegal misconduct.

City’s struggles

Miami Gardens, incorporated 10 years ago, has struggled with gang violence, drug crime and shooting sprees that have claimed the lives of many innocent people. Just this year, a 12-year-old girl was killed in a hail of bullets and a retired minister and her grandson were slain in an execution-style murder.

While overall crime has declined in recent years, murders have more than doubled, according to state crime figures. Residents haven’t sat idly. For years they have demanded change. They’ve led anti-violence crusades, crime-fighting rallies and town-hall meetings to draw attention to the city’s crime problem.

With a population of 109,000 people, Miami Gardens is the third largest city in Miami -Dade. Its population is predominantly black. Its citizens have voiced their distrust of the police department over the years on a number of fronts, noting that officers — many of them white and Hispanic — seldom leave their patrol cars except to make an arrest.

In the past, Boyd and other top commanders have insisted that in order to quell violence they need the community to cooperate and help them root out criminals.

“The real problem here,’’ Drago said, “is the police department does not have a relationship with its community — black or white. When they make these kinds of stops for minor offenses, it only re-enforces the mistrust.’’

Saleh, whose store is tucked between a public park and working-class neighborhoods, contends that Miami Gardens police officers have repeatedly used racial slurs to refer to his customers and treat most of them like they are hardened criminals.

“Police line them up and tell them to put their hands against the wall. I started asking myself ‘Is this normal?’ I just kept thinking police can’t do this,’’ Saleh said.

Last year, Saleh, armed with a cache of videos, filed an internal affairs complaint about the arrests at his store. From that point, he said, police officers became even more aggressive.

One evening, shortly after he had complained a second time, a squadron of six uniformed Miami Gardens police officers marched into the store, he says. They lined up, shoulder to shoulder, their arms crossed in front of them, blocking two grocery aisles.

“Can I help you?” Saleh recalls asking. It was an entire police detail, known as the department’s Rapid Action Deployment (RAD) squad, whom he had come to know from their frequent arrest sweeps. One went to use the restroom, and five of them stood silently for a full 10 minutes. Then they all marched out.

Boyd, who is black, said earlier this year that headlines of killings and shootings in Miami Gardens overshadow the gains his department has made since the city established its police department in 2007.

“Rest assured that our department is fully committed to complying with the laws that govern us,’’ Boyd said in his written statement emailed to the Herald Wednesday. He added that he was also committed to “exceeding the expectations of those that rely on us, and providing the best possible service to the residents of this great City.’’

‘Like family’

For 17 years, Saleh has owned 207 Quickstop. Saleh has come to know his customers by their first names, and even by their nicknames. He has watched some of them grow from toddlers into young men. He feels for them when loved ones die, and has celebrated with them when their babies were born.

“To me, these people are like family,’’ said Saleh, a native of Venezuela who is of Palestinian descent.

About three years ago, Saleh said police asked him to participate in what they called a “zero-tolerance” program to reduce crime. He gladly signed up, not realizing at the time how much it would impact his business and customers. Under the program, Miami Gardens police are given broad powers to stop and arrest people who appear to be loitering or trespassing at the participating business.

The idea behind the program is based on the “broken window theory,’’ a concept that has been employed by police around the country. The theory holds that a community that rids itself of petty crime, such as shoplifting, vandalism and trespassing, can eradicate more serious crime because criminals won’t have anywhere to hide.

Drago said the idea does work — but only if a police department has built a good relationship with its residents.

“There’s a lot of groundwork that has to be laid with the community before you start sweeping,’’ he said.

Almost immediately after Saleh put the “zero-tolerance” sign in his window, he regretted it.

Miami Gardens police officers, he said, began stopping his patrons regularly, citing them for minor infractions such as trespassing, or having an open container of alcohol. The officers, he said, would then pat them down or stick their hands in citizens’ pockets. But what bothered Saleh the most was the emboldened behavior of the officers who came into his store unannounced, searched his store without his permission and then hauled his employees away in the middle of their shifts. He finally told them he no longer wanted to participate in the program and removed the sign.

The officers, however, continued their surveillance of his store over his objections. The officers even put the sign back on his store against his wishes, he said.

One video, recorded on June 26, 2012, shows Sampson, clearly stocking coolers, being interrupted by MGPD Sgt. William Dunaske, who orders him to put his hands behind his back, and then handcuffs him, leads him out of the store and takes him to jail for trespassing.

More than once, Saleh has told police that Sampson is an employee and is not trespassing.

On that June arrest report, obtained by The Herald, police explained the trespass arrest, saying that Sampson was arrested for loitering outside the store when in fact the video, which has a date and time stamp, clearly shows him being handcuffed and arrested inside the store.

FDLE records show that Sampson was stopped at least once a week for the past four years, and sometimes several times a week and even as many as three times in one day. The stops are often conducted by the same police officers, who have arrested him time and time again.

“I never felt they had any probable cause,’’ Sampson said. “They hop out of the car and search me before they even ask me for my name.’’

Saleh theorizes that it’s an easy way for the department to make it seem like they are making a large number of arrests.

“They have specialized units to combat crime and they need to bring in the numbers to justify those units,’’ Saleh said.

Said Sampson: “We have people shooting, killing, robberies. This is really ridiculous that they spend so much time arresting people for trespassing.’’

Another employee, Ron Picart, was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm. The case was never filed by the state attorney because the officer, Dunaske, found the firearm under the store’s counter during an illegal search, which was video recorded.

Beer and football

On a typical weekday afternoon, the Quickstop’s front door squeaks incessantly, as customers wander in and out. They buy snacks, like pickled pigs feet and potato chips, grab a beer or two, and stop to chat with Saleh. Few of them own cars, and usually walk or ride a bicycle.

Some stand in front of the store’s television and talk about football as they sip coffee. Others do their business and are in and out. In the parking lot, a few of them are drinking beer out of paper bags.

Since Saleh has served notice that he is going to sue the city, Sampson hasn’t been arrested, and police are not as active in the store’s parking lot.

But Saleh is mindful of his David vs. Goliath battle with the city’s police department. He worries about his safety, and carries a licensed firearm.

In December, Saleh was followed out of his parking lot by a Miami Gardens police officer, who stopped him after a few blocks. The officer, Carlos Velez, said he stopped Saleh because his tag light was out.

Two other squad cars arrived at the scene, bringing the total number of officers on the scene to six. A police dashboard camera captured it all.

“I thought, you know, there is a lot of serious crime in Miami Gardens,’’ Saleh said. “Why do they need six police officers on a car stop with a burned-out tag light?’’

Another officer, Eddo Trimino, approached Saleh’s passenger side, opened the door and removed a gun that was in a bag containing the store’s money, Saleh said. They ran a check on the gun, which Saleh was licensed to carry.

They cited him for having a bad tag light, tinted windows and bald tires.

Before leaving, the unit’s then-sergeant, Martin Santiago, allegedly told Saleh:

“I’m going to get you mother-f-----,’’

The next day, Saleh viewed video of his truck as it pulled out of the parking lot the night before.

His tag light was working.

Simon called Miami Gardens’ approach of “selective enforcement’’ a clear violation of civil rights.

“Unfortunately, this is being done all across Florida and the country,’’ Simon said.

“I have to say congratulations to the owner of the convenience store for recognizing this is not acceptable and having the courage to stand up and challenge it.’’

Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this story.

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