Miami Gardens police accused of rampant stop and frisk abuse

Shop owner who taped officers says police department's zero-tolerance program is pretext for racial profiling

Police officers stopping and searching a customer in a still from the store's video footage.
YouTube/Courtesy Alex Saleh

A convenience-store owner in suburban Miami said he is preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing local police of unlawfully stopping and searching his customers, after his security cameras allegedly captured officers questioning a disproportionate number of African-American patrons.

The Miami Herald said the stops were conducted as part of the Miami Gardens Police Department's zero-tolerance crime-reduction program.

Shop owner Alex Saleh told Al Jazeera that for nearly three years he watched police officers stop and frisk his customers, most of whom were black. He said the situation reached a point that some customers would call and ask for permission to enter the store. "I would say, 'Yes, of course you're welcome. Why are you even asking?' And they would tell me, 'Because the police said I was trespassing.'"

Saleh said that last year he set up several cameras in his shop to record what was going on. He and his attorney Steve Lopez are preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the Police Department of conducting unlawful stops and searches. 

Baylor Johnson, the spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told Al Jazeera that perhaps the most disturbing thing about the footage — even more than the acts they record — is the reason the footage exists.

"Alex Saleh put the cameras up in his store not to catch criminals but to document the actions of the police who are supposed to be there to protect him, his store and the community."

Saleh said footage captures officers conducting searches of his business without warrants, stop and frisks of customers and employees and frivolous arrests of individuals who are legally authorized to be on the premises.

One of his employees, Earl Sampson, has been stopped and questioned by officers 258 times in four years while at work, according to Saleh. Despite being an employee, Sampson has been arrested 62 times for trespassing.

Zero-tolerance policy

Miami Gardens, a suburb of Miami, has one of the highest crime rates in the United States, according to the Neighborhood Scout website. To combat this, the police department launched its Zero Tolerance Zone program in 2007.

"This program is designed to reduce the number of individuals who are sometimes seen trespassing and loitering on private property without legitimate business," according to the Miami Gardens Police Department website.

The program authorizes officers to act on behalf of business owners in their absence. Business owners are required to post a sticker on their premises indicating their participation.

Critics of the program say it goes too far. "So-called zero-tolerance policies impose severe discipline for all offenses without regard for individual circumstances. Under policies like this, people are punished — often extremely harshly — for even the most benign infractions," Johnson told Al Jazeera.

"Even if these programs seem to be neutral on paper, they open the door to unfair and discriminatory enforcement and give bad officers license to go from a protector of the public to a bully with a badge," he added.

Saleh said he enrolled in the program about three years ago. Although officers may monitor participating businesses only in the absence of owners, Saleh said officers routinely walked into his store while he was present to harass mostly black employees and customers.

Johnson said the actions of the officers in this case seem to go beyond even zero tolerance. "An employee being arrested multiple times for 'trespassing' while at work is not an enforcement of the law. No policy makes that legal or acceptable," he said.

Saleh told Al Jazeera that even after he removed the sticker and told officers that he no longer wanted to participate in the program, officers continued to enter his store to disrupt business and stop and frisk people. One officer, he said, went so far as to glue another sticker on the premises.

After he filed a complaint with the department's internal affairs unit in 2012, Saleh said officers became even more aggressive, harassing him and his employees outside of work. In one incident, he said officers issued him three tickets, including one for a broken taillight.

"The sergeant who gave me the tickets came to my window and said, 'I'm going to get you, mother------,'" he said. 

When asked to respond to these allegations, Chief of Police Matthew Boyd told Al Jazeera in an email, "Whenever we receive a complaint regarding one of our officers, not only do we take it seriously, but we swiftly investigate the allegations."

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