How "Zero Tolerance" Policing Helped Bad Cops in Florida Create a Civil Rights Nightmare
By Justin Peters
The Miami Herald has published a stunning, maddening story about alleged persistent police harassment of blacks in the city of Miami Gardens, Fla. (You should read the entire Herald story; it will raise your blood pressure and ruin your weekend, but you should still read it.) For years, police would come to a convenience store in a transitional neighborhood and hassle black customers and employees in the name of proactive crime prevention—regularly citing and arresting men for loitering or trespassing, even when they weren’t.
One man, an employee of the store, was “stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years,” with almost all of these incidents happening on store premises. He was arrested 62 times for trespassing, and, again, these were arrests for being on the grounds of the store where he was employed.
You know, I think by the 61st arrest, much less the 62nd, it's not racial profiling anymore in the sense of being statistical. By then, it's gotta be kind of personal.
These incidents and others were recorded by video cameras installed by the store’s owner for the express purpose of documenting police misconduct:
The videos show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of [storeowner Alex] Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.
How does something like this happen? Blame it on endemic racism, yes, and on bad apples in the police department—but also blame it on a short-sighted local crime-reduction policy that, in retrospect, was always, always ripe for abuse. The convenience store incidents began when police convinced the store’s owner to enroll in the department’s “Zero Tolerance Zone” program. In Miami Gardens, when a shop becomes a Zero Tolerance Zone, the owner signs an affidavit authorizing the police to enter the premises when the owner is absent and question, eject, and/or arrest all those whom they suspect of being up to no good.
The website of the Miami Gardens Police Department notes that the program is “designed to reduce the number of individuals who are sometimes seen trespassing and loitering on private property without legitimate business.”
The fact that Miami Gardens police kept arresting that one particular employee even after it was very clear that he worked at the store is baffling, and obviously indicates that more was going on here than simple overzealousness. But the alleged police misbehavior is rooted in the idea that cities can keep their streets safer by keeping poor black men off of them, and that it's up to an individual cop’s discretion to determine what sort of behavior is and is not appropriate.
The “Zero Tolerance Zone” initiative sounds similar to the controversial stop-and-frisk programs that have been deployed in New York and other cities, where police officers are encouraged to routinely stop and question people on slim grounds—“suspicious behavior” is a favorite excuse—in hopes of seizing guns and drugs and stopping crime before it starts. ... . Inevitably, the people being stopped and questioned are minority residents of crime-ridden areas—police have no incentive to deploy these tactics in rich white neighborhoods with minimal street crime. ...
This all comes down to the goddamn stupid, silly, racist “broken windows” theory of crime prevention that encourages police to treat the symptoms in hopes of curing the disease. ... As a long-term crime-prevention strategy, broken windows is intellectually bankrupt; as a short-term strategy, it is a recipe for civil rights abuses. If the allegations are true, the Miami Gardens story makes this all painfully clear.
"That store is a hangout for dope sellers and people who do not get up and go to work everyday. It is unsafe. A man was killed in the parking lot a just the other day. Most of us have kids and we tell our kids over and over to stay away from that store. If you want to be a thug or run a thug hangout, then don't get mad at the police."
Thus, of course a place called "Miami Gardens" is going to be majority white. Why would anyone doubt it? And even if you sort of wonder whether "Miami Gardens" really looks like Bedford Falls, well, how can you check?
Let me give some general advice: if you come across a story about local government that seems kind of screwy, go look up the demographics.
|Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert|
|Incoming City Manager Cameron Benson|
|Alex Saleh, civil rights plaintiff|