Miami Gardens Under Fire For Zero-Tolerance Crime Policy

To combat an upsurge in shootings and other violence, the town of Miami Gardens adopted "zero tolerance" policies aimed at addressing even small violations. Now a local merchant has filed a civil rights lawsuit saying the policy has led to harassment of his customers and employees.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The police chief of Miami Gardens, Florida has stepped down over allegations that his officers have been violating civil rights. The town is just north of Miami and it's been struggling with a string of deadly shootings. In response, it began what it calls zero tolerance operations, including arrests even for misdemeanors. Which in turn has led to a federal lawsuit. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has the story.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Crime is actually down this year in Miami Gardens. But since the summer the city has reeled from gun violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Police in Miami Gardens are investigating a deadly shooting from overnight..

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The still of the night shattered by gunfire. Family, friends and even strangers gathered outside the bullet-riddled home...

Miami Gardens is a working class, mostly African-American community, a typical Florida neighborhood of single family homes. But like many urban areas, it has issues with drugs and gangs. During one 11 day stretch recently, 10 people were shot. After an arrest was made, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert held a news conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

MAYOR OLIVER GILBERT: The senseless violence that plagues communities across the country and that's infected Miami Gardens will not be tolerated in this city. Everything that we can do to stop it, we will. And we won't ever give up.

ALLEN: Gilbert said under zero tolerance policies, police officers would increase patrols and make arrests for, quote, all arrestable offenses. But it's raised an issue that's proved controversial - how to balance concerns about crime with respect for civil liberties.

A convenience store, 207 Quickstop, was one of the places police targeted even before Gilbert announced his new zero tolerance policies.

It's the only store for blocks around and it stays busy. A steady stream of customers come and go. But over the last four years, it's been a focus of increased attention by the police. Customers and store owners have been repeatedly stopped, questioned, and arrested. Those who work and shop at the store are angry. One customer, Eric Bryant, says all the arrests at the Quickstop aren't doing anything to address the shootings in the neighborhoods.

ERIC BRYANT: But if the police weren't so focused on this store, and watching everybody at this store, they'll patrol the neighborhoods and stop the crime, you know?

ALLEN: After complaining to the police without results, the convenience store owner, Alex Saleh, took action. He installed more than a dozen video cameras inside and outside the building that chronicle what he's maintained is a campaign of intimidation and harassment. Steve Lopez is Saleh's lawyer.

STEVE LOPEZ: What you see in the videos is you see officers, even without authority from the business owner, arresting people for trespassing while they're lawfully authorized or invited to be at the location.

ALLEN: The videos show one of the store employees being arrested repeatedly - at least 60 times over the four-year period. Most of the arrests were for criminal trespassing, while the employee was at work as a clerk at the convenience store. Lopez and his associate, Carlos Reyes, filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the store owner and 10 other people, including customers and employees. Reyes says the wave of shootings in Miami Gardens doesn't justify the police actions.

CARLOS REYES: The effort by the city to tackle and deal with the crime situation does not mean that they with impunity can decide to discard the constitutional rights of every citizen.

ALLEN: Miami Gardens officials have declined requests for interviews. City manager Cameron Benson released a statement yesterday announcing Police Chief Matthew Boyd's resignation. He says the city is conducting an internal investigation into the allegations of harassment but that it plans no changes to the zero tolerance crime policy. And in Miami Gardens there are many who support them.

ARTHUR JACKSON: I think that these initiatives are working.

ALLEN: Arthur Jackson is the pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, one of Miami Gardens' largest congregations. He says he thinks the police are right to keep a close watch on the convenience store. And he believes many in Miami Gardens agree.

JACKSON: The residents that are being affected by the crime, that are afraid to go out at night, that feel they're not safe in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods, they are not criticizing the police department. They're complimenting the police department.

ALLEN: It's an issue on which residents in Miami Gardens and others in Florida are divided. And this week the NAACP's Florida conference joined those opposing the city's zero tolerance policies. It called on the Department of Justice to investigate the Miami Gardens police for possible civil rights violations. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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