Miami-Dade County

NAACP calls for probe of ‘harassment’ by Miami Gardens police

The Florida NAACP on Tuesday called for a federal investigation into the Miami Gardens Police Department, which has been accused of making hundreds of arrests of African Americans under a “zero tolerance policy’’ that critics say is a thinly-veiled form of racial profiling.

The civil rights organization urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review “the pattern of intimidation’’ by police officers in dealing with the city’s residents, who are predominately black.

The move comes two weeks after a Miami Herald story detailed how the city’s police officers repeatedly arrested patrons and employees of a convenience store for minor offenses, such as trespassing and possessing open containers of alcohol, then used the stops as a pretext to search people who had not committed serious crimes.

One employee of the store, Earl Sampson, 28, was stopped by Miami Gardens police 258 times during the past four years. Almost all his arrests were for trespassing, or trespassing after being given a warning. Records show that Sampson was stopped so many times — sometimes as many as four times in one day — that he racked up a 38-page rap sheet. Prosecutors never pursued most of the charges against him.

Alex Saleh, the owner of the 207 Quickstop, the convenience store where Sampson worked, was so concerned about how police were conducting the arrests that he installed video cameras in and outside the store last year. The video surveillance shows, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and charging them with trespassing — even though most of them had the owner’s permission to be on the premises. Officers are also seen on the video searching the store without warrants or permission, using what appears to be excessive force on people who are clearly not resisting arrest. Police are also accused of filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.

Miami Gardens, with a population of 106,000 people, is the third-largest city in Miami-Dade County. Nearly 80 percent of its citizens are black, making it the largest predominately black city in the state. Its mayor, city commissioners, city manager and police chief are black. Approximately 30 percent of the police force is black.

During a news conference Tuesday, David Honig, the NAACP Florida’s legal council, said the city’s leaders are sending a disturbing message to cities across the nation.

“If it’s acceptable in Miami Gardens, then it is acceptable everywhere,’’ Honig said. “Regardless of the race of those running the government, you don’t get a pass.’’

Miami Gardens City Manager Cameron Benson began an inquiry last week, but thus far, no disciplinary action has been taken.

The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Benson, but Mayor Oliver Gilbert issued this statement:

“The city of Miami Gardens shares the Florida NAACP’s concern for possible civil rights violations. That is why the city manager has initiated an investigation into these allegations. As a city we remain committed to resolving this matter and swiftly addressing any incident of misconduct. Once this investigation concludes, we will update both our residents and the community-at-large on our findings.”

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office reviewed the case last year, and concluded that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of police.

Despite the media furor, some community leaders remain supportive of the police department.

Miami Gardens minister Donald F. Clarke credited the city’s “proactive policing” with helping reduce crime. He defended the officers, some of whom volunteer in the church’s food bank several times a month.

“I support what they do, and I don’t want to restrict them,’’ Clarke said. “Obviously I’m totally against profiling, but we see them visible, we see them doing aggressive policy, and it has helped bring down the crime.’’

The city’s crime statistics, however, show that crime — both violent and non-violent — has nearly doubled over the past three years.

In 2010, there were 530 violent crimes; in 2012, the city had 999 violent crimes, including 25 murders.

Non-violent crime, such as burglary and auto theft, increased as well, from 2,614 in 2010 to 5,397 in 2012.

Sampson and nine others filed a federal lawsuit against the city and police department last week, accusing them of systematic civil rights violations. Saleh, who is also a plaintiff in the suit, praised the NAACP for recognizing the seriousness of the issue.

“You can’t violate citizens’ rights while trying to solve crime,’’ Saleh said Tuesday.

“A police officer complaint should be investigated the same as any other citizen is investigated,” he said. “No one is above the law.”

Under Miami Gardens’ “zero tolerance” trespassing program, police are given sweeping power to arrest people on any property, public or private, posted with no-trespassing signs.

The Herald investigation, however, showed that officers often went beyond stopping trespassers, in some cases arresting hundreds of legitimate customers and employees of the store. Some videos show officers stuffing their hands in people’s pockets or pocketbooks and dumping the contents on the pavement.

The Miami Gardens initiative is similar to a law employed in New York City that allowed officers to stop and frisk pedestrians regardless of whether they were suspected of criminal activity. Civil libertarians denounced that program, contending that it amounted to racial profiling, since the majority of those stopped were black or Hispanic.

In August, a federal judge ruled that New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy was unconstitutional. The decision is currently under appeal.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this story.

Related stories from Miami Herald