Miami Gardens

Miami Gardens defends cops accused of harassing, rousting store’s clientele

 

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

Miami Gardens leaders defended the city’s police force Friday, a day after the Miami Herald ran a story — accompanied by videos — that detailed how officers regularly stopped, questioned, aggressively frisked and arrested the predominately black employees and customers of a local convenience store.

Over the past four years, records show, Miami Gardens police have made scores of arrests at the 207 Quickstop, a store at 3185 NW 207th St. that Alex Saleh has operated for the past 17 years. One employee, Earl Sampson, 28, was arrested more than 100 times, and 62 of those arrests were for loitering and trespassing.

Several videos show officers hauling Sampson out of the store as he is stocking coolers or taking out the trash.

Mayor Oliver Gilbert said the allegations made by Saleh about police misconduct are untrue. The city has reached out to him in the past and he hasn’t been cooperative, he said.

“We have repeatedly asked the owner of the store to provide information so we can investigate his allegations and he has refused,” Gilbert said.

However, public records, obtained by the Herald, show that Saleh did provide videos to the city. The state attorney also issued a subpoena for the videos last year, and Saleh and his attorney complied. It’s not clear what, if any, action was taken. The state prosecutor’s records were not yet available on Friday.

“I gave them seven videos,’’ Saleh said. “I gave them to the internal affairs commander, Gary Smith.”

Saleh added that after he filed the internal affairs complaint in August 2012, one of the officers he complained about, Michael Malone, confronted a customer who was part of the complaint.

Saleh said that after the officers started harassing him, his employees and customers, he began to doubt that police were conducting an impartial investigation, and he did stop cooperating. He said that should not have stopped them from collecting their own evidence, given the seriousness of the complaint.

“What about their own video, the videos that officers are supposed to take from their cars?” Saleh asked, contending that each time an officer turns on his lights, the vehicle’s dashboard cam is supposed to activate. Saleh said he requested copies of the police videos corresponding to the arrests he recorded and was told the videos didn’t exist.

“They didn’t exist because the officers never put their lights on,’’ Saleh said.

Police documents show that the city ended its investigation of Saleh’s internal affairs complaint earlier this year, claiming that the storekeeper did not provide sufficient evidence.

Saleh and his attorney say they have spent about $20,000 — most of which was paid to the city for public records — to obtain documents that show police and city leaders conspired to violate the civil rights of its citizens through a program of racial profiling, false arrest, illegal search and seizure and intimidation.

They intend to file a federal civil rights lawsuit early next week against the city.

City Manager Cameron Benson, who was appointed on Oct. 23, said that his main focus has been on recent crime-prevention efforts, and he has not yet become familiar with Saleh’s complaint.

“I want to look at all the information and all the videos in their entirety before moving forward with anything we need to do from a policing standpoint,” Benson said. “Rest assured that once I sit down with police and go through everything, I can make a better call on what needs to be done going forward.”

On Thursday, Miami Gardens released an updated plan from the mayor for increasing safety in the city, and it details a continuation of Miami Gardens’ “zero-tolerance policy” on crime, increasing police presence and targeting repeat offenders.

Saleh said that almost immediately after he signed up to participate in an earlier incarnation of the program two years ago, police officers began arresting his customers in droves, almost always for minor infractions such as trespassing or having an open container of alcohol. In June 2012, he had had enough and installed 15 video surveillance cameras inside and outside the store. He said he installed them not for protection from criminals, but for protection from police.

Over the past year, he has gathered more than 27 videos that he says show police officers stopping, searching and arresting people who not only have permission to be on the property, but haven’t committed any crimes. Saleh opted out of the program in August 2012. The city’s investigation showed that Sgt. Gerald Machurick ordered his officers to stop trespass enforcement on the property at that time.

“They did stop trespassing [arrests],’’ Saleh said Friday. “But harassing, no. I have more videos.’’

Several of the videos obtained by the Herald, which are time-stamped, do show officers making stops of his customers in December 2012, as well as in January and February of this year.

Former Councilman Andre Williams described the Quickstop area as a decades-long “hot spot” of illicit activity. But, he said, it has become clear that the current policing policies are not a panacea.

“We turned a blind eye to some of the realities of life in [Miami Gardens]. Crime has been an issue for some time and we’ve tried to downplay it,” Williams said. “You just can’t be heavy-handed in law enforcement. There should be a more holistic plan.”

Deputy Police Chief Paul Miller pledged: “If there’s improper conduct we will certainly take action.”

But he added: “I would caution painting this isolated incident in a 20-square-mile city as the norm.”

Repeated phone messages and emails to Chief Matthew Boyd were not returned.

Williams, who lost to Gilbert in the Miami Gardens 2012 mayoral race, said that if he were on the City Council he would advise the police to change their behavior.

“I would make sure we have proper sensitivity training in place, so our police understand the nuance of operating in a city like ours,” Williams said. “We need to devote specific resources to training them to deal with the demographics of our community.”

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