For years, the federal government has used the Patriot Act as a tool to pursue and charge dangerous terrorists. But what if agents used the power afforded by the controversial anti-terror legislation in another way — to target local criminals who terrorize their own communities one bullet at a time?
That’s apparently an option on the table in Miami, where a wave of gun violence that engulfed inner city communities in 2014 has now spilled over into the new year. This week, Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon and U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer discussed declaring local gangbangers “domestic terrorists” and investigating and prosecuting them as such, according to the commissioner.
“This is in the realm of what I call creative prosecuting,” said Hardemon, a former public defender who believes the Patriot Act would enable law enforcement to better investigate violent criminals and heap harsher penalties on perpetrators. Ferrer “admitted to me that he’d never thought of using the Patriot Act in the way I presented. But I liken the type of terror we have [in Miami] to when someone shoots up a parade.”
To Hardemon’s point, mass shootings in communities like Liberty City have seemingly become more frequent in recent months. Gunfire erupts day and night. Children have been shot by stray bullets. Crowds have been gunned down with assault rifles.
Residents often refer to the area as a war zone without any sense of hyperbole, and emotional public gatherings to plead for peace are frequent. On Thursday, dozens in the crime-torn public housing community of Liberty Square gathered with Miami and Miami-Dade police to knock on doors and talk about the persistent gunplay.
While they were knocking on doors, a man was shot in the arm three blocks away. When police arrived, they said he refused to cooperate.
It’s “very scary” living in Liberty Square, said Magdala St. Georges, 34. “Especially for people like us that have young kids. And there’s really nothing you can do about the problems by yourself.”
Hardemon, who sat down with St. Georges on Thursday for a 20-minute conversation, says part of the reason gangsters have been able to thrive in Liberty City and other Dade neighborhoods is because witnesses and victims fear retaliation for talking. He said gangsters who use violence to paralyze entire neighborhoods are, under the definition of the Patriot Act, domestic terrorists.
“Children shouldn’t have to live in a community where they’re hearing AK-47s every week, or stepping over dead bodies,” said Hardemon, who has talked generally about federal intervention for months.
Whether his proposal will stick or even prove useful is unclear. The Patriot Act has been used — many would say abused — to investigate and target U.S. citizens who don’t appear to meet the definition of a terrorist. The anti-terror legislation has been cited, for instance, to authorize secretive “sneak-and-peek” warrants for drug-related cases. But the U.S. attorney’s office already uses the RICO and Hobbs acts to pursue charges against organized crime rings and violent gangs.
Just a few months ago, federal authorities charged the Big Money Team gang with terrorizing Little Havana and Allapattah through armed robberies, assaults and carjackings. They packaged charges through a seldom-used federal law, “violent crime in aid of racketeering.”
Still, Hardemon said Ferrer was receptive to embracing the Patriot Act. Ferrer declined through a spokeswoman to speak to the Miami Herald.
Michelle Richardson, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said it’s unlikely using the Patriot Act would provide investigators any power to go after gangsters beyond what they are already afforded. She said if anything, deeming local gangsters domestic terrorists might simply widen the already vast net of who can be investigated and chip away further at civil rights.
Last year, for instance, it was disclosed that the federal government used a legal interpretation of the Patriot Act to collect phone-call records in bulk. “Once you get into declaring purely criminal everyday activity terrorism you start a slippery slope,” she said.
Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson, who was among the police officials at Liberty Square Thursday, agreed with Richardson.
“I think that’s a bit oppressive,” Patterson said during a walk through the notorious housing complex that seems to be the magnet for a majority of the shootings. “We’ve got to reach the people here. We know the people.”
But frustration is palpable as police efforts seem to have had minimal impact on the rising tide of violence. In November, the last time police and politicians held a large gathering at Liberty Square, residents talked about diving to the floor of their homes when gunfire erupts outside, and reminded housing officials that their video surveillance system in the projects is often undercut by cameras that don’t work.
Miami police are adding more cops to the force, but that will take time. They also have a new gunfire detection system, called ShotSpotter, but almost a year after it was approved by city commissioners the system — which some argue is ineffective anyway — hasn’t yet come online.
On Thursday, Patterson and a host of other local leaders including Hardemon, Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, took part in the walk they called Operation Restoration Resource.
The group, which met at the Liberty Square community center, was joined by about 50 locals. They were divided into three groups and then walked door to door speaking to residents and handing out information packets with contacts mostly to keep kids out of trouble. As they walked, news of the shooting nearby lit up iPhones.
The event showed just how eager the struggling community is to clean up the problems — and how worried they were about the continuing barrage of gunfire. Even before they left the center, in large groups and accompanied by police, leaders allayed their fears by telling them there would be a large police presence during the walk.
It was light out as the walk began. Kids riding bikes and on skateboards filled the grass squares between the squalid townhouses. As darkness settled in, they headed home. Most of the lights in the squares were broken, likely shot out, police said.
Miami Police Chief Llanes said events like Thursday’s are part of the solution to the problem, which he said won’t be fixed through a “police state.” But, while he said he hadn’t been included in any discussions about the Patriot Act, he said using the counter-terrorism legislation as another tool might be part of the solution, as well.
“Any tool that we can use,” he said, “I’m all for it.”
Over the first half of 2014, The Miami Herald identified 43 people shot in and around Liberty Square, Miami’s oldest public housing project. Updated figures for shootings in Miami have been requested but not yet provided. Here are some of the more notable incidents over the last six months in and around the city:
Jan. 6, 7: Three shootings within 14 hours left two men dead, another clinging to life and two girls injured. The shootings were within a mile of each other between Northwest 53rd and 64th streets and 11th and 18th avenues.
June 24: A black SUV pulled up to a group of people gambling and listening to music at an apartment complex adjacent to Liberty Square on Northwest 65th Street and 12th Avenue. Two men got out and began spraying the U-shaped courtyard with semi-automatic gunfire. Nine people were shot. Nakeil Jackson and Kevin Richardson were killed. Police have not caught the shooters, but believe one of the nine shot was targeted.
Sept. 28: 15 people were shot at a teen club called The Spot in Liberty City, the result of a high school argument that escalated. Two of the victims were pre-teens. Two teenagers said to be responsible for the shooting have been arrested.
Nov. 21: Two teenagers were gunned down at a park adjacent to Carol City High School during an exchange of gunfire at the school at Northwest 33rd Avenue and 183rd Street. One of the teens stumbled into the school begging for help.
Dec. 22: Nine people were shot while playing or watching a basketball game at Arcola Park, 1680 NW 87th St. The shooter allegedly drove up on 17th Avenue, opened the passenger window and sprayed semi-automatic gunfire into the crowd.
Dec. 25: Three separate shootings during the holidays in Coconut Grove, Liberty City and Overtown left four people injured and two dead.