Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Miami Gardens police chief resigns amid scandal

Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd resigned Wednesday amid allegations that officers under his command have systematically committed harassment, intimidation and civil rights violations.

Boyd, the city’s first and only police chief, had disputed the allegations, which were detailed two weeks ago in a story by the Miami Herald.

The story revealed that members of the force’s specialized crime units routinely stopped, searched and arrested patrons of the 207 Quickstop, a Miami Gardens convenience store just west of Florida’s Turnpike near Sun Life Stadium.

Earl Sampson, 28, a customer who also worked at the store, was stopped by police 419 times over the past five years, city records show. Of those stops, he was cited more than 160 times with trespassing-related offenses. In at least two instances, officers came into the store and hauled him away — for trespassing — while he was in the midst of working.

Records show that besides Sampson, many of the store’s regular customers were questioned hundreds of times and aggressively searched for being “suspicious” or for minor infractions, such as loitering and violating liquor-law ordinances.

Boyd maintained that the officers’ actions were appropriate, given the city’s crime problems. The store is in a high-crime area in need of proactive policing, he said, and residents who live in the surrounding neighborhood frequently complained about the store’s clientele, Boyd said.

But Alex Saleh, who has owned the store for 17 years, became increasingly disturbed by how police were treating his customers. He felt that in some cases, police had no cause to arrest and search people just because they were patrons of his business.

Last year, he filed a complaint with the Miami Gardens Police Department. Shortly thereafter, he said, police activity at his store only intensified. Frustrated at the tensions between police and his customers, Saleh installed a $15,000 video surveillance system and began recording the arrests. The officers were undeterred. Some of them even mugged in front of the cameras, pouring seized open containers of beer on the pavement in full view of the cameras.

Saleh recorded hundreds of hours of film, showing Miami Gardens police officers stopping, frisking and arresting customers who, records show, had committed no serious crime and did not resist arrest.

Other videos show the officers conducting illicit searches of the store without warrants or the permission of the owner.

Boyd’s departure comes as the Florida NAACP and its Miami-Dade branch have called for a federal probe into the city’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has given officers broad powers to arrest people who are trespassing. Critics believe that Miami Gardens’ policy is akin to racial profiling.

“The Miami Gardens community deserves a police department that is committed to stopping crime and preserving justice,” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida NAACP, said in a statement Thursday. “This is a good first step toward that goal, but hardly the last step. The systematic allegations of police intimidation did not happen because of just one person; they were the result of a sustained lack of oversight.”

City Manager Cameron Benson, in conjunction with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is investigating.

Deputy Police Chief Paul Miller will lead the department until a successor is named.

“In the wake of everything that happened, this is the best move for the police department so we can deal with our issues and move in a different direction," Benson said.

Boyd had previously announced he would retire in January.

During the past three years, both violent crime and nonviolent crime in the city have doubled, according the city’s federal crime reports.

Miami Gardens, which was incorporated in 2003, is the third-largest city in Miami-Dade County with a population of 106,000; it is the largest predominantly black city in the state. In 2007, it created its own police force, breaking away from the county’s police department.

Boyd was appointed its chief, having served in Miami-Dade for 24 years — 16 years of them in the county’s Miami Gardens section.

When the city swore in its first officers, Boyd was somewhat ambivalent about the city’s decision to create its own force.

“I don't think it was a necessity to switch from the county to a city department, but it will definitely make a difference,” Boyd told the Herald at the time.

Under Boyd’s leadership, crime numbers have remained among the highest in the county. Each year, about 25 people are murdered in Miami Gardens. In the county, only Miami has had more murders on a yearly basis than Miami Gardens.

Benson said he is consulting with the Florida Police Chiefs Association to help recruit a new chief. In the meantime, the manager said he will be actively involved in the department on a daily basis.

Many of the officers involved in the allegations were members of the force’s Rapid Action Development squad and its Crime Suppression Unit, which are deployed in high-crime areas of the city.

Records obtained by the Herald show that nearly all of the commanders — and most of the officers in the squads — are white and Hispanic.

Saleh, Sampson and a dozen other citizens recently filed a federal lawsuit against Miami Gardens police and its city officials alleging that they fostered a longtime policy of racial profiling, harassment, intimidation, false arrest, illegal search and seizure, and other civil rights violations.

Florida’s NAACP and its Miami-Dade branch urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an impartial investigation into the department.

State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office looked into the charges last year but concluded that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of police.