Editorials

Police and race in Fort Lauderdale

Black residents of Fort Lauderdale, who say they have been mistreated by police, took part in a news conference over the weekend following the racist scandal that embarrassed the city’s police department.
Black residents of Fort Lauderdale, who say they have been mistreated by police, took part in a news conference over the weekend following the racist scandal that embarrassed the city’s police department. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler and Police Chief Frank Adderley have moved with commendable speed to rid the department of four officers after a five-month internal affairs investigation confirmed their involvement in an ugly scandal over a racist video and racist text messages. But that can’t be the end of it.

Mayor Seiler seems genuinely sincere when he says that the city has “zero tolerance for this type of behavior.” Likewise, Chief Adderley says his entire department disapproves of the four officers’ behavior. “We cannot afford to have this in our profession,” he told an interviewer on NBC Channel 6 over the weekend.

The controversy must come as a huge disappointment for a community that had good reason to believe this sort of incident was a thing of the past. Those who can recall the days when the police department was notorious for mistreating blacks and other minorities in the manner of a backwoods racist town are surely aware that Fort Lauderdale has made enormous strides since the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a different place today, and better for it.

But there is no way that merely ridding the department of four “bad apples” will be enough to repair the damage that’s been done. Blacks in Fort Lauderdale see this as the tip of the iceberg. They believe police rely on racial profiling in minority neighborhoods. This biased standard of policing, they say, results in more of their citizens being unfairly detained, wrongly accused of crime, mistreated while in custody or cited for minor infractions that go unticketed elsewhere in the city.

It asks too much of the city’s minority community to have them believe that, with the complicit foursome now gone, there is no longer a race problem in the department and everyone can move forward. That is simply unrealistic.

Marsha Ellson, president of the NAACP’s Broward County branch, expressed the widespread belief that blacks are victims of biased policing and skepticism over the inadequacy of the investigation conducted by the police department, saying the community’s voices have not been heard. “I cannot find a citizen that was spoken to,” she complained.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein contends there is much more to be done beyond getting rid of the four officers. “Can anybody really believe that they did nothing in the line of duty that was not affected by the beliefs they held?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with the Editorial Board. “This kind of thing seeps into their actions.”

He wants the dismissal of 52 pending criminal cases in which the four officers were involved, as well as a review of 126 closed cases dating back to January of 2014.

The alarming thing is that the deep racial prejudices of officers carrying guns and badges would probably never have come to light if the ex-fiancee of one of the officers had not brought them to Chief Adderley’s attention.

There is no indication that the internal affairs investigation by the department went beyond what she turned over, nor any indication that anyone in authority wants to ask more questions.

Yet they must be asked, preferably by the U.S. Department of Justice, with the full cooperation of city officials.

A DOJ investigation is the best way to overcome the deeply held resentment and suspicion among Fort Lauderdale blacks that this incident has brought to light, as well as the best way to erase doubt about how far the department has come since the bad old days.

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