Miami-Dade County

Miami Gardens mayor calls new footage of police behavior ‘unacceptable’

For more than a year, the cameras at 207 Quickstop in Miami Gardens rolled around the clock.

They caught a police officer confronting a frail-looking woman, shoving his hand in her purse, dumping its contents on the pavement, then kicking at the scattered items before walking away.

They were rolling as another uniformed police officer handcuffed a 69-year-old man, then rifled through his pockets and ordered him to sit down while cuffed behind his back, a feat the man could only accomplish by falling on his backside.

There’s more footage: An officer grabs a plastic bag full of Red Bull drinks from a man, flinging the cans on the sidewalk, then picking up one and giving it away to someone in a parked car.

It’s not like the officers didn’t know they were being recorded.

They not only knew, the videos show, but in some cases, they relished it, taunting the store’s owner by waving open beer cans and cups, taken from customers, directly in front of the cameras as if the cans were trophies.

The store’s owner, together with a group of his customers and employees, on Wednesday filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing Miami Gardens police of racial profiling, illegal search and seizure, harassment and intimidation of the store’s largely African American employees and customers.

The videos were released four days after The Miami Herald published a story, along with previous clips, that detailed how the city’s police officers have stopped and arrested people repeatedly for minor infractions. For years, according to store operator Alex Saleh, officers have illegally frisked and searched his customers and employees in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

Saleh, who has owned the store at 3185 NW 207th St. for 17 years, installed the cameras in June 2012, not to protect himself from criminals, but to catch cops he said had been abusing his customers’ civil rights for years.

Earl Sampson has been arrested 62 times for trespassing, sometimes while he is inside the store, even though he has worked at the store since October 2011. Three videos, previously obtained by the Herald, show officers coming into the store and removing Sampson as he is stocking the coolers or taking out trash. One short clip shows Saleh protesting as Sampson is led away in the middle of his shift.

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but said the videos — some of which were shown to him by the newspaper — are disturbing and disheartening, especially in a city whose leaders are nearly all African American.

He said the city’s longtime police chief, Matthew Boyd, would be leaving in short order. Boyd, who is black, advised his bosses in September he planned to step down in January, Gilbert said.

City Manager Cameron Benson, who was appointed in October, has launched an investigation, and Gilbert, a former prosecutor and civil rights attorney, said any officers who violated laws will be disciplined — up to and including being fired.

“I can’t be a mayor of a city that’s 80 percent black and having officers harass black people for doing nothing,’’ Gilbert said. “You can’t get arrested for just going to the store.’’

For years, the city has been struggling with violent crime. Murders have doubled since the city was incorporated 10 years ago. The third-largest city in Miami Dade, Miami Gardens also has the third-largest percentage of African Americans in the country, according to the mayor.

Gilbert said there’s no doubt the probe will examine whether its officers have violated the basic civil rights of some of its poorest citizens.

What’s just as troubling to Gilbert is the way that officers responded after the storekeeper complained about their actions. In the months since he filed an initial complaint with the city, the department’s massive RV has been parked with regularity outside the store. And just last week, the same day the story became public, Sgt. Martin Santiago walked up to Saleh’s store camera, held up a cup of confiscated beer and poured it on the ground.

The Herald shared the videos with Gilbert on Monday.

“It appears,’’ Gilbert said, “the officers were being arrogant with their authority and that is unacceptable.’’

Beer can caper

Willie Battle lives alone in a little house on Northwest 33rd Place in Miami Gardens.

Now nearly 70 years old, he is disabled and walks with a cane, having injured his back in a construction fall more than a decade ago. He has had several operations, and the scars to prove it.

He starts each day with a slow, but steady walk to the convenience store around the corner, the 207 Quickstop.

In January, Battle was stopped by Miami Gardens police about 6:30 p.m. for having an open container of beer in front of the store. The citation was later dismissed, but the episode, captured on the store’s video camera, remains with him.

On that day, Officer William Dunaske, approached Battle, questioned him, took his beer, then ordered him to empty his pockets. But Battle was slow, and Dunaske, apparently to speed things along, asked him to put his hands behind his back, so he could handcuff him.

Dunaske then proceeded to stick his hands in Battle’s pants pockets, pulling out wads of paper and dropping them at the man’s feet. He led him toward a patrol car, where Battle was directed to sit on the pavement, a feat the handcuffed Battle managed to accomplish only by letting himself fall on his injured backside.

“I’m almost 70 years old, I can’t sit on the ground like that,’’ Battle said. “I told them to let me sit in the back of the police car, but they said I had to sit on the pavement.’’

“I look at that video, of this old man, just sitting there,’’ Gilbert said after watching the tape in its entirety, including a moment before the arrest when Battle warmly hugs a young girl and her mother.

“I think of my grandfather, who is 80 years old, and I would be in tears too. I don’t see how that can be excusable,’’ he said.

Saleh filed a complaint last year with Miami Gardens police, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and the FBI. The state attorney’s case file has not yet been released, but documents obtained by the Herald show that her office, which had copies of the videos, declined to investigate. Miami Gardens also closed the case in June, contending that Saleh wasn’t cooperating, a charge his lawyer denies.

The mayor, who lives in the neighborhood, said police have, for years, been trying to clean up the Quickstop area, which is rife with drug crime and gang activity. A man was shot and killed in the parking lot a few months ago, and residents have complained about the store’s shady clientele, the mayor said.

“There’s some people there, who, quite frankly clearly appear to be drug addicts,” Gilbert said. “And it’s difficult for residents to see that and then, when they have their houses broken into two weeks later, they believe that it’s because of the people who are the store.’’

But Saleh, too, had been mindful of the neighborhood’s concerns. In 2008, records show he signed up for the police department’s anti-crime program, which designated his business as a “Zero Tolerance Zone.’’

The program, used successfully elsewhere in the country, sounded good on the surface. It gave police officers broad powers to stop and arrest people on private property for even the smallest of crimes with the idea that it sends a message to criminals that police — and business owners — will not tolerate lawbreakers.

“But then they started charging trespass to people who were my customers, people who had my permission to be here,’’ Saleh said. He tried without success to reason with the officers, but the more he complained, the more aggressive they became, he said.

He took down the sign in early 2012, and told officers who came to the store that he no longer wanted them to make any trespassing arrests. But that didn’t stop police, who continued to stop and frisk his customers in droves.

Toree Daniels has been stopped and searched so many times by Miami Gardens police that she almost knows the officers on a first-name basis.

So when Officer Michael J. Malone approached her at the 207Quickstop on July 31, 2012, she said she didn’t hesitate when he grabbed her pocketbook, began rifling through it, then dumped its contents on the sidewalk and walked away. A passing customers stopped to help her pick up her belongings.

The same for Omar Dean, who was stopped by Malone that same month. The video shows Malone grabbing Dean’s plastic bag, then flinging a batch of unopened cans of Red Bull on the ground.

Both Daniels and Dean have long criminal histories, for drug crimes and battery, but Saleh said neither has caused trouble for him, nor do they pose a threat to society.

“There is just no reason for them to treat Toree the way they do,” he said.

Jasmine Rand, a civil rights attorney with Parks & Crump in Fort Lauderdale, said arbitrarily arresting people for trespassing and other minor crimes should not be used as a pretext to solve other crimes.

“Not only do such policies violate citizens’ constitutional rights it creates long-lasting and damaging effects in the individual’s life, leaving him or her with a criminal record that will affect employability,’’ Rand said.

“When a person is not employable, it encourages the individual to participate in illicit or criminal activity to earn money and provide for their families; therefore, not curing a criminal element but creating it.’’

City’s next move

Malone has since left the force. Stephan Lopez, the lawyer representing Saleh, said Malone was never prosecuted or disciplined for his actions and thus retains his police certification.

Sampson, 28, has not only been arrested for loitering outside the store, but he’s been hauled away from inside the store while he is working. Despite his 38-page rap sheet, made up largely of a litany of trespassing arrests, he has never been convicted of anything more serious than marijuana possession.

Gilbert said the city needs to work quickly, but fairly and methodically, to help quell the public outcry over the story, which spread quickly on the Internet across the world last week. Gilbert said he understands why people are outraged over the videos, but cautions against a rush to judgment.

“I know people are saying this is racial profiling,” he said, “but you can’t have racial profiling in a city that’s almost all black.’’

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