MIAMI GARDENS – Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert on Tuesday side-stepped a blistering news report on heavy-handed police action against residents as he gave his state of the city address.

But Gilbert pledged that the state’s largest black municipality is shifting its focus to community policing and winning back the trust of the people.

“We have invested heavily in policing and far too little in prevention,” Gilbert acknowledged as he spoke to an estimated 750 guests who turned up for the speech and the ceremonial opening of a new 70,000-square-foot city hall.

The policing tactic of “zero tolerance” aimed at curbing one of the nation’s highest crime rates was first reported by The Miami Herald last year.

The controversy surfaced even more substantially on May 29 – just days before Gilbert’s address – when Fusion, an online publication, reported that officers stopped and questioned a total of 65,328 people – in a city of about 100,000 – between 2008 and 2013. They were listed merely as “suspicious” and not arrested.

Fusion said it followed up on The Herald’s story by analyzing some 30,000 documents obtained from the police department. In the story, reporters Alice Brennan and Dan Lieberman said the residents listed in the “field contact” reports identifying them as “suspicious” included 8,489 children – among them a 5-year-old child – and 1,775 senior citizens, including a 99-year-old man.

“Children were stopped by police in playgrounds. Senior citizens were stopped and questioned near their retirement home,” the Fusion story said.

Fusion said its reporters were told by two officers – who were not identified – that department brass ordered officers to meet quotas through stops and arrests. “One officer said he was ordered to stop all black males between 15 and 30 years of age,” the report said. Some 76 percent of the population is black.

Fusion followed up with Earl Sampson, an employee at the 207th Street Quickstop which was at the center of The Herald’s story.

Fusion said officers stopped Sampson more than 200 times. He was listed in field contact reports 181 times and was arrested 111 times – including 71 times for trespassing at his job site.

Store owner Alex Saleh was so outraged that he installed video surveillance cameras in his store just to record police action. Attorney Stephan Lopez has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city on behalf of Saleh and several other people, claiming violation of their constitutional rights. Depositions are to begin this month in the lawsuit, Fusion said.

Fusion reported that the city received 15 federal grants to help pay for police overtime work as part of the “zero tolerance” policy. It also said it found widespread instances of falsified field contact reports and extensive duplication.

However, no connection was drawn between the grants and the voluminous number of reports suggesting sustained policing.

Fusion said both the police department and the city have denied in court papers that officers engaged in unlawful conduct.

Gilbert on Tuesday emphasized the new thrust of the police department.

“Interactions between residents and officers can be frequent and not forced,” he said. “Those conversations don’t have to be quantified. Their measure will be the relationships that are created and their dividends will be the reduction of crime. It’s OK to speak and be polite – let them know that you don’t just work for them; you want to work with them.”

Gilbert said that, in addition to ensuring that all officers are trained in community policing, they will also have “… a full and complete understanding of my and this city council’s position that we’re safer when we work together. That requires us to trust each other. That requires us to respect each other.”

An attorney, Gilbert added that, “we are all the same – equal under the law, all subject to its prohibitions and all protected by its safeguards.”

In the city’s effort to reinforce its commitment to community policing, Gilbert announced that of the 11 additional police officers being hired, eight are Miami Gardens residents. 

“That means when they’re not at work their cars will be parked in front of their houses in Miami Gardens deterring crime,” he said.

Police Chief Steven Johnson, who took over the department in April after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor in the wake of The Herald story, is already seeking to win over community trust.

Earlier this year, at a community forum, Johnson gave residents his cell phone number and encouraged them to call him with concerns.  The 30-year law enforcement veteran also has roots in Miami Gardens, buying his first home and raising his children in the area.

“He will keep us safe; he will safeguard our rights and he will help guide us into a new day of city of Miami Gardens policing,” Gilbert said.

The mayor called attention also to other initiatives that he argued will have a bearing on the safety of residents, such as a bond issue to upgrade city parks, a building to house STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, a facility to expose youth to careers and interests behind the scenes in entertainment, a culinary institute and an alternative sports center.

“As a city, we’re going to offer all of these activities to try to energize the interests and occupy the time of the children of the community … We will collectively do all of these things in an effort to make this community safe but, understand this, the single greatest factor that will impact the safety of the residents of the city won’t wear a uniform or be on a park, it won’t involve cameras or computers, it won’t have sirens or handcuffs,” Gilbert said.

“The future of our safety and in some ways the future of our society depends in large part, on whether parents will begin again to parent their children. We used to do it. Actually spend time with your children, talk to your children, and help them do their homework. Listen to them, and if necessary, discipline them. It’s going to be easier for you to discipline them, than for us to,” he said.