The man on the right is Earl Sampson, a 28-year-old employee of the 207 Quickstop on 207th Street in the suburban city of Miami Gardens, Florida. There's not much remarkable about Earl - except if you ask him how many times he's been stopped and questioned by the city's police department. The answer? 258 times in four years - or at least once a week. He's gone through 100 pat-downs and was arrested and jailed 56 times.
Earl Sampson's depressing familiarity with local law enforcement isn't due to his supposed innate criminal nature - possession of marijuana is the only serious charge he's ever faced. A close look at his rap sheet reveals the answer: trespassing - 62 instances of it, nearly all of them at the 207 Quickstop. So how does a guy get yanked up on trespassing charges on a weekly basis at the very place he's supposed to be?
The guy on the left might have a few answers. He's Alex Saleh, the 36-year-old owner of the 207 Quickstop. Three years ago, Saleh signed up with the Miami Gardens Police Department for a "zero-tolerance" program to help combat crime. Back then, the city's violent crime and property crime rates were 77.64 percent and 38.05 percent higher than the state's overall respective rates. In response, the police wanted to apply a bit of the "broken windows" theory Rudy Giuliani used to powerwash New York City, so it seemed like a good idea at the time to sign up.
What Saleh didn't expect was three years of seeing his black customers harassed, harangued and arrested by Miami Gardens police for the most minor of infractions. According to the Miami Herald:
Miami Gardens police officers, he said, 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. He finally told them he no longer wanted to participate in the program and removed the sign.
The officers, however, continued their surveillance of his store over his objections. The officers even put the sign back on his store against his wishes, he said.
This is chilling.
In June 2012, Saleh installed 15 surveillance cameras in and around his store. Not to safeguard his store from robbers, but to safeguard his customers from the behavior and actions of police:
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 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.
“There is just no justifying this kind of behavior,’’ said Chuck Drago, a former police officer and consultant on police policy and the use of force. “Nobody can justify overstepping the constitution to fight crime.”
Saleh finally had enough and is now making preparations to file a civil rights suit against the police department. However, doing that has likely made him an even bigger target for police harassment:
Since Saleh has served notice that he is going to sue the city, Sampson hasn’t been arrested, and police are not as active in the store’s parking lot.
But Saleh is mindful of his David vs. Goliath battle with the city’s police department. He worries about his safety, and carries a licensed firearm.
In December, Saleh was followed out of his parking lot by a Miami Gardens police officer, who stopped him after a few blocks. The officer, Carlos Velez, said he stopped Saleh because his tag light was out.
Two other squad cars arrived at the scene, bringing the total number of officers on the scene to six. A police dashboard camera captured it all.
“I thought, you know, there is a lot of serious crime in Miami Gardens,’’ Saleh said. “Why do they need six police officers on a car stop with a burned-out tag light?’’
Another officer, Eddo Trimino, approached Saleh’s passenger side, opened the door and removed a gun that was in a bag containing the store’s money, Saleh said. They ran a check on the gun, which Saleh was licensed to carry.
They cited him for having a bad tag light, tinted windows and bald tires.
Before leaving, the unit’s then-sergeant, Martin Santiago, allegedly told Saleh:
“I’m going to get you mother-f-----,’’
The next day, Saleh viewed video of his truck as it pulled out of the parking lot the night before.
His tag light was working.
If they weren't wearing badges, we'd call them mobsters. But even the mafia would blanch at this sort of behavior.
According to the CATO Institute's National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project, there have been 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct that involved 6,613 sworn law enforcement officers and 6,826 alleged victims, based on information gathered for the 2010 calender year.
Seeing instances of police misconduct for yourself is piss easy thanks to the proliferation of cameras, from cell phone cameras to dash cams and body cams a la GoPro and the like. The footage from most encounters often ends up on LiveLeak, YouTube and other popular video sites. Law enforcement officials often argue that such footage is illegal to take. Time and again, the courts have ruled otherwise, although you might end up getting cuffed and booked if an officer doesn't want his face or actions on video.
For the average black American in most major cities, seeing instances of police misconduct is as easy as stepping out of the front door.
Stories like Earl Sampson's and those like him hint towards an even bigger problem lurking under the surface, one that's institutional in nature and thoroughly embedded within the nation's bedrock. It has a lot to do with the relatively unchecked powers of law enforcement and the implication that those powers can be exercised on undesirable groups with as much vigor as possible in the name of safety and crime prevention. It also speaks to the ongoing evolution of the police department into a paramilitary force largely concerned with revenue generation, politics and protection of those well-to-do or those closely linked to law enforcement.