Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Earl Sampson, 28, has been stopped 258 times, searched more than 100 times, and jailed 56 times ... in four years.
In New York, incoming mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to rethink the city's controversial stop and frisk policing policy, which has already been successfully challenged in the courts and is only being kept alive by the outgoing Bloomberg administration’s appeals. Even some cops have spoken out against it.
In Miami Gardens, Florida, however, an even more aggressive approach to policing – one that verges on the Kafkaesque -- is going strong, as revealed in an extraordinary story in yesterday’s Miami Herald.
The paper told the story of Earl Sampson, a 28-year-old Miami Gardens resident who has been stopped and questioned 258 times in four years, searched more than 100 times, and arrested and jailed 56 times. The worst offense he’s been convicted of? Possession of marijuana.
But the truly mind-blowing thing about the case is that Sampson has been arrested dozens of times for trespassing at the convenience store where he works.
You didn’t read that wrong: He has been arrested, sometimes several times in one week, for loitering or trespassing at his workplace. And the cops know who he is and that he works there, because it is often the same cops who conduct the arrests – over and over again.
From the Herald:
One video, recorded on June 26, 2012, shows Sampson, clearly stocking coolers, being interrupted by MGPD Sgt. William Dunaske, who orders him to put his hands behind his back, and then handcuffs him, leads him out of the store and takes him to jail for trespassing.
More than once, [store owner Alex] Saleh has told police that Sampson is an employee and is not trespassing.
Sampson, who is black, is by no means the only person to be targeted for arrest by the police at Saleh’s 207 Quickstop, a run-of-the-mill convenience store in this city of 109,000 north of Miami.
This nightmarish scenario, which has played out repeatedly according to records and videos obtained by the Herald's Julie K. Brown, arose when Saleh agreed to participate in a "zero-tolerance" crime program. He hoped that decision would lead to a safer environment for his customers and workers in a city that struggles with gang violence and drug crime. Instead, police routinely enter his store without his permission and arrest employees and customers (sometimes, as videos show, using force against people who are not resisting):
Miami Gardens police officers … began stopping his patrons regularly, citing them for minor infractions such as trespassing, or having an open container of alcohol. The officers, he said, would then pat them down or stick their hands in citizens’ pockets. But what bothered Saleh the most was the emboldened behavior of the officers who came into his store unannounced, searched his store without his permission and then hauled his employees away in the middle of their shifts.
Saleh, who was born in Venezuela and is of Pakistani descent, is preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that the cops are conducting racial profiling and illegal stops and searches. He also told the Herald that after he complained last year, the police became even more aggressive. He took down the "zero-tolerance" sign that marked his store as part of the program. The cops put it back against his will.
The Miami Gardens cops would not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment about the civil rights complaints except with a prepared statement from department chief Matthew Boyd (who is black): "Rest assured that our department is fully committed to complying with the laws that govern us," it said in part.
The department's actions are based on the "broken windows" theory of policing, in which minor quality of life offenses are pursued. The idea is that by cleaning up the little stuff, police can create an environment of lawful behavior that will prevent worse offenses from occurring. It's an approach that I myself have recently advocated with regard to traffic crimes in New York.
But the situation in Miami Gardens seems to be an example of exactly the wrong way to implement such a strategy. "The real problem here," policing consultant Chuck Drago told the Herald, "is the police department does not have a relationship with its community — black or white. When they make these kinds of stops for minor offenses, it only re-enforces the mistrust."’ You can't fix what’s wrong with a community with this kind of enforcement.
The Herald story documents an oppressive environment in which a black person can expect to be arrested on a regular basis just for being present. Go ahead, read the whole story. Try to wrap your mind around what Sampson and others are living through. As writer and social worker Jeff Deeney pointed out on Twitter yesterday, this isn't even a new version of Jim Crow. This is the old Jim Crow. Apparently, it never went away.