In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Miami Gardens police make much ado about nothing in arrests

Like so many convenience store owners in crime-plagued neighborhoods, Alex Saleh turned to technology for help. He spent $7,000 on a surveillance system, installing 15 cameras, small and hardly noticeable, and trained them on both the interior and the exterior of the 207 Quickstop.

Saleh needed the protection. But not from criminals. “Absolutely not,” he told me. “This was to watch the police.”

The purpose of the cams was to capture video evidence of the constant, mindless harassment of his customers and employees by the Miami Garden police. And they did. The cameras were installed in June 2012. Saleh said after two years of the cops going after his workers and customers, or searching his store without the bother of a search warrant, “I had to do something. This is suppose to be a free country. This is not Afghanistan.”

The cameras supplied evidence that the Miami Gardens cops were expending an astounding amount of time and energy in pursuit of nothing much. Videos show instance after instance of police tormenting folks at the 207 Quickstop without apparent provocation. But there’s more than video evidence to substantiate Saleh’s complaints. The Herald’s Julie Brown discovered that the Miami Gardens officers documented their bullying ways in their own arrest reports.

Police records show that Earl Sampson was arrested by Miami Gardens police 62 times for trespassing. That’s 62 times in four years, which seems to indicate that Earl Sampson was a criminal kingpin when it came to messing around where he wasn’t supposed to be. He was Miami Gardens’ serial loiterer.

City officials must reason that if their police department managed to catch this fellow loitering 62 times, how much loitering was Earl Sampson getting away with when the police weren’t around to catch him?

Except Earl Sampson’s long, long rap sheet, that daunting record of petty arrests, also shows the disposition of the charges, including a long, long list of “dismissed” or “nolle pros” or “no action.” Perhaps this was because some of those “trespassing” arrests occurred at the 207 Quickstop — where Sampson was employed and working. Saleh’s cameras show instances when Sampson was interrupted at work, once while stocking shelves, and was rousted, cuffed and hustled outside into a patrol car.

Sampson, 28, has been tossed in jail 56 times, Julie Brown reported. Police records show he was stopped and questioned 256 times. And that he was searched 100 times. Yet, despite this mighty effort, Miami Gardens police have never managed to add anything more serious to his rap sheet than a minor drug charge. It was as if Miami Gardens had recruited Kafka to write the police officer’s handbook.

Their bullying was not just aimed at Sampson. Andrew Brown, 44, told me that he had been working in the 207 Quickstop kitchen two years ago, when the cops came in and started messing with him. “My mistake was I argued.” He said from then on, the police harassment became so frequent and intense he finally quit his job. He spoke with something like nostalgia about the Miami-Dade Police Department, which patrolled Miami Gardens until 2007, when the city organized its own police department.

Customers don’t fare much better at the 207 Quickstop. The videos show police stopping and searching and arresting customers who had wandered into through the store’s orange and yellow façade, apparently intent on nothing more than making their purchases.

One fellow, who seemed to be offering no resistance, was slammed down to the sidewalk and handcuffed. Of course, at that time, the Miami Gardens police officers were unaware that Saleh was compiling his video dossier. One video shows a police officer stopping Saleh himself on the sidewalk outside his store entrance, grabbing away the cup the storeowner was holding to check its contents for beer. It was water. “They know I’m Muslim,” he said. “I’ve never had alcohol.”

Andrew Brown said the harassment extends beyond the store across 207th Street into Buccaneer Park. “But when these cases get to court, they get thrown out. No judge wants a case from Miami Gardens.”

On Friday afternoon, as I spoke to Saleh inside 207 Quickstop, a disappointed shopper playfully scolded one of his clerks. “No Boston baked beans,” the woman said. “I can’t believe you’re out of Boston baked beans.”

Someone replied, “Call the Miami Gardens police.”

Not that Miami Gardens doesn’t need vigorous policing. Over an 11-day stretch beginning in late October, 10 people were gunned down in the city, including an 11-year-old girl. Last year, Miami Gardens, a working-class town of modest homes and a population of about 110,000, suffered 25 homicides and 369 robberies.

But it’s hard to imagine how the arresting and rearresting of a guy like Earl Sampson, 62 times over, might stanch gun violence and gang warfare. Though I suppose it does lower the odds that Sampson himself will be murdered, given the amount of time he spends in police custody. But Sampson’s not exactly the Al Capone of Miami Gardens. I’m guessing that the city police might make better use of their resources.

Mayor Oliver Gilbert has talked about a “zero-tolerance” strategy, going after even the lowliest of offenders, figuring that would inhibit more serious criminal behavior. But the videos from the 207 Quickstop look more like stop-and-frisk gone wild. Besides, it can’t be that fulfilling, arresting the same fellows over and over for imaginary crimes. Must be as repetitious and boring as factory work.

“They’re just trying to bump up their quotas,” suggested Albert Brown, Andrew’s twin brother, trying to guess the motive.

That was Saleh’s theory too. Earl Sampson’s repeated arrests might look like a mean and petty waste of time, especially to Earl, but each time he’s busted, a beleaguered police department can pad its arrest stats.

The numbers indicate that the city police officers have been very, very busy.

And while all this busy work might not have solved the city’s violent crime problems, the Miami Gardens PD has put a hell of a dent in the city’s loitering epidemic. Just ask Earl Sampson.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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