Fabiola Santiago

Lawsuit spotlights how Miami-Dade police treat black young men. It’s appalling | Opinion

Black realtor sues Miami-Dade County police for racial profiling

Bodycam video of Miami-Dade County Police Department shows the confrontation on August 17, 2017 with black realtor Robert Menard, who is now the subject of a federal lawsuit that alleges civil rights violations.
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Bodycam video of Miami-Dade County Police Department shows the confrontation on August 17, 2017 with black realtor Robert Menard, who is now the subject of a federal lawsuit that alleges civil rights violations.

In what world is the act of cousins sitting inside a BMW in front of a house chit-chatting — one of them a real estate agent, the other a contractor — the scene of a crime in progress that requires the entire Crime Prevention Team to pounce, guns blazing, sirens blaring?

In what world is it fair for a high school track and field coach — working on his doctorate in sports management and juggling two jobs — to end up yanked out of his car at gunpoint, forced to the ground, and jailed overnight for no valid reason?

It happens in the world of black men and policing in Miami-Dade.

It happens when assumption of guilt, racial profiling, and “implicit racial bias” come into play in police work, as the attorney for these young men, Yechezkel “Chezky” Rodal, puts it in a lawsuit filed April 4.

Powerful stereotypes so ingrained in the subconscious that they affect the actions and decisions some police officers make, and that undermine the good work of the rest of the police force.

“That’s what happened here,” says Rodal, who has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on behalf of real estate agent Robert Menard, 30, and St. Thomas University student Steven Payne, 26.

The lawsuit — and a police body camera video in Menard’s case — shine a spotlight on how some Miami-Dade police officers treat young black men. The police behavior is appalling: unnecessarily drawing guns; false accusations of resisting; angry hurling of curse words.

In Payne’s case, police have yet to release bodycam video to the lawyer.

In both cases, the police officer unleashing his anger on these men was the same man: Carlos D. Angulo of the Crime Prevention Team in the Intercoastal District. But other police officers around him also engaged in wrongdoing — or did nothing to stop an innocent man from being mistreated, Menard’s video shows.

“I have a gun pointed at my face — and I didn’t do anything,” Menard says about the afternoon of Aug. 17, 2017. “I’m staring down the barrel of his gun — a light flashing — and I have windows rolled down and my hands up. One slight move and he would have shot me.”

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Realtor Robert Menard, 30, talks about the afternoon in 2017 when police rushed his parked BMW and he “stared down the barrel of a gun for the first time in my life.” Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

Menard had picked up a cousin to go to a Dolphins game and was sitting in his black BMW, which was facing north in front of his house, talking to kill time when he saw Miami-Dade cruisers rushing down the street in the opposite direction.

In seconds, the cops had boxed Menard and his cousin in — and officers in bulletproof vests and carrying major weapons were rushing his car, pointing a gun in his face, then pulling him out of the car when the officer didn’t feel that the burly Menard was moving fast enough.

For the next 20 minutes, this young man who owns a real estate brokerage firm endured nothing but condescension and false accusations that he was “resisting” from Angulo, who repeatedly hurled the curse word “f-----g” at him. Only the sergeant, Menard says, tapped Angulo on the shoulder and called his attention to try to de-escalate the situation — and the officer’s anger. The rest of the officers either watched or added their own bigoted remarks like “you are who you hang [with].”

“Was it my cousin’s dreadlocks?” wonders Menard.

Oh, and for the crime of not accepting in silence that he was a “criminal” and asking “Is this necessary?” and, when the harassment didn’t stop, for telling them that he was going to file a complaint, Menard got a ticket for having too dark a tint on his windows, which was later dismissed. As all this was going on, Menard’s cousin, who sat in the car, was badgered by the officer guarding him about what he did for a living.

If this is what crime prevention looks like in Miami-Dade, go back to the drawing table, county leaders.

This was no pull over of suspects, as the officers on the scene claimed in what the lawsuit calls “simply fabricated.” A neighbor across the street took photos of the scene and confirms Menard’s account that his car was parked facing north and all the cars swarming him, including unmarked units, are facing south.

Menard and his cousin, who is not part of the lawsuit, were where they belonged. But in the video you keep hearing officers refer to the call as a pull over, and at some point, one officer tells another that “this is going south fast” when they weren’t in harm’s way at all — and the only one inappropriately agitated was Angulo.

Likewise, Payne was where he was supposed to be when officer Angulo spotted him on Nov. 1, 2017: driving to his second job coaching track and field at Michael M. Krop Senior High School.

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Steven Payne, a 26-year-old working on a PHD in sports management, shows how he held up his hands when a Miami-Dade police officer approched him on Nov. 1, 2017. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

He was coming from the elementary school where he was a reading interventionist for kids who perform below grade level. On the way, he saw one of his athletes walking to the field and he offered her a ride the rest of the way.

Soon after, he noticed a police car make a U-turn and start following closely behind him, staying with him as Payne made two right turns. He pulled over to let the officer pass, but he “cut me off in front, hops out with his gun already drawn, yelling, ‘Get out of the f-----g car!’ ”

When the very slim Payne came out, hands up and terrified, the gun still pointed at him, he laid on the ground. Angulo handcuffed him, and after other officers arrived, “threw me in the hot police car with windows closed. It was so hot in there.” Angulo claimed Payne “wasn’t answering any of my f-----g questions.”

He says that Angulo “didn’t even read me my Miranda rights,” and took him to jail, charging him with reckless driving. He had his car towed with his cellphone locked inside.

He spent the night in jail — and lost both of his jobs in public schools as a result, even though his case was thrown out.

“It put me in such a dark place,” he says. “It set me back.”

Prejudice in policing is not a rot exclusive to Miami. Nor is the abuse of African Americans by police here anything new. The county has a long history of police misconduct, particularly toward African Americans, who continue to be automatically cast and targeted as aggressive, violent or suspicious.

But given the recent spate of cases in which police have been caught on video abusively treating black residents, it’s time to do something real about it — and more than just giving lip service, as the Miami-Dade police department does, to “our core values of integrity, respect, service and fairness.”

For one, police need civilian oversight.

The Miami-Dade County Commission voted in 2018 to reinstate the citizens’ Independent Review Panel, but Mayor Carlos Gimenez vetoed the move. He was wrong — and we’re seeing the results. Community leaders should press him and the commission to take this up again and approve it.

Officers in both the Menard and Payne cases seem to have used body cameras at whim. Police should be required to turn on their bodycams the moment they approach a citizen, not when they feel like it. Why don’t we have video cam of Menard staring at the officer’s gun? Or of Payne being pulled out of his car at gunpoint and arrested?

Asks Rodal: “How often is there an audit of officers’ bodycams?”

I couldn’t get a straight answer about any of this from Miami-Dade police. Just a document on body-cam policy, which tellingly doesn’t include citizen safety on the list of the objectives of wearing a body camera. Director Juan Perez sent me a statement similar to the one he promulgated on Twitter after the recent violent take-down of a 26-year-old black woman, Dyma Loving, who called police to report that a neighbor had pulled a gun on her. Officer Alejandro Giraldo was suspended. Loving, too, is suing the department.

“Although I am not able to comment on any allegations involving the Miami-Dade Police Department that may be pending litigation, I can assure the community that the MDPD remains committed to the highest performance standards, ethical conduct and truthfulness in all relationships,” Perez said.

He added, still in public relations mode: “While I acknowledge that a few incidents such as those recently highlighted may negatively affect the public’s perception, what is often overlooked, unfortunately, is the vast amounts of positive interactions that our officers have with the public we serve on a daily basis while doing a very difficult job. We are a resource for our community; if and when we ever fall short of our mission, we hold ourselves accountable because we are a professional law enforcement organization.”

Let’s see how that accountability works out: Angulo remains on the force. Sending him to counseling as a result of an internal investigation that took months and months to complete is not enough.

The lives of Menard, who suffers from PTSD and is in therapy, and Payne are forever marked.

Will the future Dr. Payne ever be able to answer the question in a job application — “Have you ever been arrested?” — and come out with a job after the answer?

The Miami-Dade Police Department owes these men not only compensation, but also a public apology, and it owes the rest of the community fair policing once and for all.

There seems to be a substantial disconnect between what the department says it wants to do — develop relationships with communities that will yield better police work and keep people safer — and what actually happens out there in the streets.

I sat down for a long conversation with Menard and Payne and I scoured their social media, which is filled with happy milestones: an engagement for Menard featuring a pink “She Said Yes!” cake; graduation, track meets, and diplomas for Payne.

The two men met after Menard, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, began to research officer Angulo and found Payne’s Facebook post about his arrest. Their quest for justice has bonded them, but you can see the hurt in their faces. And Menard no longer drives a BMW “so I don’t call attention to myself.”

I counsel them to keep up the faith, saying “Remember that for every Angulo, there’s a...” I mean to say good cop.

But Payne finishes for me, “a Chezky!”

The more you get to know them, the angrier you get over what police did to them.

There was no good enough reason for either of them to be staring down at a police officer’s gun in fear for their lives — other than that they are black men, and in the minds of too many, ready-made suspects.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”

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