MIAMI GARDENS – Hundreds of angry and frustrated residents packed a community meeting Tuesday night divided about the city’s police force’s effort to combat crime using a controversial “zero tolerance” policy that has come under recent fire for alleged racial profiling and civil rights violations.
At a standing-room-only meeting at the North Dade Regional Library, about 300 residents, scores of city leaders, local, state and federal law enforcement agents took part in the meeting organized by the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board.
The gathering was intended to focus on rising tensions between police and residents, centering on a neighborhood Quickstop Convenience Store. The owner, Ali Saleh, and several customers, have filed a civil rights lawsuit accusing police of racial profiling and harassment and arresting them without probable cause.
“You do not simply arrest someone for being at a store,” said Edward Shohat, a criminal defense attorney, concerning guidelines for probable cause for arrest and search. “Probable cause is the constitutional fabric of this country. Before a search on home or individual occurs, the officers must articulate, identifiable facts,” Shohat said.
At community briefings, residents are informed about how to file a citizen’s complaint against an officer and learn about criminal investigations and responses. Organizers say education and understanding are key to building harmony and resolving civic problems in municipalities.
With no resolution after filing complaints, Saleh installed a video surveillance system at his store, 3185 NW 207th St., where, over a year, officers were
captured on tape shoving and searching patrons for no apparent reason. A Quickstop employee, Earl Sampson, was arrested 258 times, mainly for trespassing, even though he was on many occasions on the job.
Saleh uploaded the video on YouTube, where it went viral. A majority of the officers in the video are white and Latino in a police force where only 30 percent are black, in a city that is majority African American. The story was first reported by The Miami Herald.
Last month, the Florida NAACP asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to open a federal inquiry into the alleged misconduct. Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd resigned last month and Deputy Chief Paul Miller is serving as interim chief.
Two miles south of the Quickstop, residents at the community meeting at the library, 2455 NW 183rd St., expressed outrage at the police department as dozens of uniformed officers, some of whom they said they recognized as behaving improperly, looked on.
The Rev. Dr. Walter T. Richardson, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board, presided over the forum which was attended by Miami-Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, Miller, Miami-Dade Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Norman Hemmings, Special Counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
“Enough is enough,” said Christopher Edwards, 34, a resident who has lived in the area for 15 years, some five years before Miami Gardens became a city. “We want justice. We want peace. Unless we come together and not play politics, this will not be resolved. I’m tired of murders, police harassment and all the negative images being painted of our city.”
While some residents criticized the police officials for treating them, they claimed, like hardened criminals, others praise the tactics used by the force, saying officers are simply taking a tough stand on crime and helping their community stay safe.
“I’m for aggressive policing but I’m against racial profiling,” said Bishop Donald Clark, a businessman in the city. “But we cannot throw the Miami Gardens police under the bus. They have done a good job for us.”
“There are spots that need to be cleaned up and Quickstop is one of them,” added resident Rachel Taalibeen. “Before we jump on the bandwagon and accuse the police, let’s come together and decide what type of Quickstop we want in the neighborhood.”
Miller did not comment on the Quickstop case, which the city is investigating, but he vowed to work with residents. “We need people involved to let us know what’s going on in the community,” he said. Saleh attended the meeting but did not speak. “This is just a meeting but we’re going to keep fighting,” he said.
Miami Gardens, with a population of about 110,000, is the third biggest city in Miami-Dade and the largest majority African-American municipality in the state. Many residents are black professionals with college degrees who are proud of their city and of the fact that the crime rate has fallen below the state average. But the murder rate remains one of the highest in Miami-Dade County.
Working in a relatively new city, officials attended the briefing for insight as they struggle to find solutions. “We have to strike a balance between aggressive policing and enforcing the law,” Gilbert said. “We need to keep our youths out of trouble.”
At the meeting, city and law enforcement officials said they are unable to solve criminal cases without the cooperation of the community. Although a program that eliminates gangs in Overtown and Liberty is expanding into Miami Gardens, officials say they still need help.
Rundle said Miami Gardens experienced 23 murders last year, with 17 still unsolved, a statement that drew gasps from the audience. “You got to step up,” Rundle told residents. “Help us. We want to serve you.”
Glenn Forshee, father of 12-year-old Tequila Forshee, who was killed last August by random bullets that struck their home, urged residents to help solve crimes by not being afraid to “snitch.” “We believe it’s important that the community get involved and take our city back,” Forshee said.
KHARY BRUYNING/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
POLICE MATTERS: Lionel Ligthborne of the Belafonte TACOLCY Center in Liberty City talks about effective ways for getting youth involved in community policing, during a community forum in Miami Gardens Tuesday.