Community And Police Tension Boils Over In Miami Gardens

The police chief in Miami Gardens, Florida, has stepped down and the force is facing allegations of racial profiling. For more why the department is under fire and how residents are responding, host Michel Martin speaks with Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown and pastor Horace Ward.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will hear about the final ceremonies honoring South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela. And we'll talk about how his passing might affect the politics of his country going forward. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Johannesburg, and she will tell us more in just a few minutes.

First, though, we're turning to a story closer to home. It is about the tension between civil rights and safety. Now you've probably heard a lot and we've talked a lot about New York City's stop-and-frisk policing strategy. But for this story, we go to Florida. There, the NAACP is calling for a federal investigation into police practices in Miami Gardens. That's a small city just north of Miami. The officials there are under fire for an aggressive zero-tolerance policy that's led to what many residents consider racial profiling and frivolous arrests.

But others believe that the crime and gun violence there has - that requires a dramatic response. The police chief Matthew Boyd resigned last week, and he and town officials are now the subjects of a federal lawsuit. We wanted to hear more about all this, so we've called Julie Brown. She's an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald who's been following this issue closely. Julie, thanks so much for joining us.

JULIE BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Father Horace Ward. He's the pastor of Holy Family Episcopal Church, which is in Miami Gardens. Father Ward, thank you so much for joining us as well.

FATHER HORACE WARD: You're welcome. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, Julie, let me start with you because one of the stories that really caught our attention was about a store owner in Miami Gardens who installed a video surveillance system. And there are hundreds of hours of police stopping - particularly, one particular man who, according to your reporting, has been stopped 600 times in, you know, whatever time period. And for what?

BROWN: Mostly for trespassing. It's part of the police department's zero-tolerance policy. It's a policy whereby police aggressively stop people. They get their identification. They can charge them with loitering, with trespassing, with other minor offenses. And the idea behind it is that if you clean up an area where there's a lot of people loitering, that in a way, it helps clean up the community and helps get people off the streets who might otherwise get involved in more serious crimes.

MARTIN: I think some people call this different theories, like they call this by different names, like the kind of quality of life or the broken windows theory. That's, like, if you attend to the small things, then kind of the big things take care of themselves. But the video surveillance - and we've seen it through your reporting, that sometimes - this young man in particular that we're focusing on, he's been stopped while he was working. So what do the police say about that?

BROWN: Well, they've given different explanations. At times, they insist that he hasn't been working there when he's been stopped. Of all those 600 times, there were times that he obviously wasn't working. He wasn't stopped 600 times every time he was working. But the store owner, his employer, recorded him several times clearly on the job, stocking counters, stocking coolers. And you could see the officers come in and handcuff him and take him away, clearly, while he's working.

MARTIN: So is this an isolated incident, or are there others that call the community's attention and have actually led to this current state of affairs? And I also want to know kind of more broadly what's been the relationship between Miami Gardens residents and the police.

BROWN: Well, there are other people that have been stopped hundreds of times. It seems that there have been many people that have been targeted by police. They clearly know who these people are. They know their names. They don't need to even ask for their identification because they have stopped them so many times that they know them on a first-name basis practically. So there are many other people they have been doing this to.

MARTIN: And when you approach the police to talk about this particular strategy, what do they say?

BROWN: They believe that this is necessary for the community. They do have a crime problem. They've had 25 murders pretty much each year for the past five years. That's a very high number. Only the city of Miami has had more murders than Miami Gardens. And Miami Gardens is quite smaller. It's a population of about 106,000 people. So, you know, it's quite a controversy. It's being debated, I think, across the country as well as here in Florida.

MARTIN: Father Ward, what about you? What do your congregants say about this - and if you don't mind my asking - what's your opinion about this?

WARD: First, let me say that Miami Gardens is a wonderful place. It's a place where I have spent time. I have been there 18 years now. I have seen the place go through transition, reformation, development. As for the congregation, there is deep concern and genuine concern as to what's happening. In fact, I can also say that there's fear as to how this has developed and what the implications are going forward.

Yet, at the same time, there is great hope and real hope by way of Holy Family Episcopal Church and the other churches. In fact, there are 121 churches there in the city wanting to continue to invest in the development of that community and the lives of the 110,000 residents. And real effort is being made. Including partnership...

MARTIN: But could I just ask you, though - I'm sorry...

WARD: Certainly.

MARTIN: ...You said fear. Could I just ask, fear of what? Of what are you speaking there?

WARD: I'm talking, in broad strokes, fear as to where this will lead, what will happen for our city. As for an investigation, as for the lawsuit, what does that mean for our residents? What kind of backlash might there be? If you want to say, put it another way, to fear of the unknown. But that's what I was also saying that while...

MARTIN: But is it fear of the crime problem, or is it fear that the police have gone too far? Or is it both?

WARD: It's both.

MARTIN: Julie...

WARD: It's both.

MARTIN: Julie, what do you say about this? What are people telling you when you've been reporting on this?

BROWN: I think people are pretty shocked, quite frankly, when they see the videos. You can - no matter how much you can talk about or give excuses for it or say, well, these people aren't exactly upstanding citizens. These are people that are drug addicts, quite frankly, alcoholics. These are people that are breaking the law with, you know, not serious crimes. So I think that people at first glance might think that, OK, well, the police are doing their job.

They're cleaning things up. But when you see the videos and you see how the police are treating these people, I think people are really taken aback. It's really undignified. You feel sort of - it's painful sometimes looking at these videos, watching a police officer grab a woman's purse and just start rummaging through it, and then dumping the contents on the ground and kicking it and walking away. I mean, it's just - it's almost inhuman in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: What have officials said when these videos have been presented to them? Or have they said anything about this?

BROWN: Well, initially, I don't think they looked at the videos. And the mayor, he didn't - he said that he felt that the allegations weren't exactly as they were presented. But after he saw the videos - and I showed them to him - he was quite, I think, shocked by the behavior of the officers in the videos.

MARTIN: Father Ward, what about you? Have you seen the videos yourself? Or have any members of your congregation been affected by this? I mean, clearly, I'm sure people have been affected by the crime problem. And, you know, one would be - you know, anybody who lives, particularly in a small community, where there's been a lot of crime would feel kind of affected by it. So have you had people in your congregation affected either way - either they feel they've been abused by the police, or they feel that what's going on in the community is kind of out of control and that extreme measures are necessary?

WARD: There are divergent positions, opinions and even feelings, yes. While I say that, there is great and grave concern as to the situation. It's born out also of seeing the videotapes. And many persons have shared with me that they have seen and their reactions. I, too, have seen and am concerned. But I also want to say that there is the other side of it. Yes, this is a major issue, and I do believe that it has to take its course. Yet, there are other great things that the police have invested, committed themselves. And members of - or the community of Miami Gardens have partnered with the police department and city officials.

MARTIN: I do...

WARD: So I also want to look at the big picture beyond what this whole situation is, and it is of real and deep concern.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that we did reach out to the police department there, but, as we mentioned, the leadership - we did not hear back from them, by the way, in time for them to join our conversation. But we've also mentioned that the leadership of that department is in flux. The police chief Mathew Boyd - it's not clear whether he resigned or he took early retirement. He is - interestingly enough, he is also African-American.

The city is predominantly African-American. And he was the first police department - he was the first chief of that department. Isn't that right, Julie, that the department itself has not been, as its own entity, been enforced for that long? So, Julie, could you give us a final word on what is next here? Now that these issues have come to light and these issues are being, you know, discussed kind of openly now, what's next?

BROWN: Well, the city manager has announced that he's conducting his own internal affairs investigation. The issue that is now being raised is the very officers that are in the department's internal affairs division, some of those officers are some of the officers who have been accused of being in these videos and have been accused of violating some of the citizens' rights. So I spoke briefly with the deputy chief who is now the acting police chief, and I did raise that issue with him briefly on Friday. And he said if in fact the officers in the internal affairs division are part of this lawsuit or part of these allegations, then he will deal with that and that will be addressed.

MARTIN: Julie, have you ever witnessed this yourself? I mean, I know you've seen the video surveillance by this particular storeowner. Have you personally witnessed this? The kind of...

BROWN: No...

MARTIN: ...Thing we're talking about here.

BROWN: No because by the time that I was - I started to investigate this, the owner of the store, Mr. Saleh, had already served noticed that he was going to sue the city. So they really significantly backed off on their involvement at the store. They don't - they're not there as often as they used to. Let's put it that way.

MARTIN: That was Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie Brown. Also with us, Father Horace Ward, pastor of the Holy Family Episcopal Church in Miami Gardens. They were both kind enough to join us from member station WLRN, which is in Miami. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. I hope you'll both keep us posted.

BROWN: Thank you.

WARD: You're welcome.

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