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Police officers patting down black teenagers in Overtown and Liberty City hardly makes for headline material. That's what bothers John de Leon. The Dade County assistant public defender says he inadvertently discovered a City of Miami Police Department search policy -- which involves ordering youths to remove their shoes -- while he was preparing the defense of a Liberty City teenager detained in connection with a traffic violation.
In a complaint that is under review by the U.S. Department of Justice, de Leon has asked the federal government to investigate "widespread abuse of police authority against young African Americans in this county."
While questioning four City of Miami police officers who were present during the arrest of his client, nineteen-year-old Andy Hodge, de Leon was stunned to hear the cops describe under oath their unwritten pat-down policy. During Off. Emiliano Tamayo's sworn deposition, de Leon asked what the policy would be regarding passengers in a vehicle that was stopped for a traffic violation.
"Basically the pat-down is for weapons," Officer Tamayo explained.
"Do you pat down everyone?" de Leon asked.
"That's all it is."
"Even the passenger?"
"For our safety, yes."
"So if you had a group of middle-aged women in a white neighborhood in Miami," de Leon continued, "and one of them had a suspended driver's license, you would pat down all the middle-aged [women] -- have them step out of the car and pat them down and ascertain where they lived?"
"No, because they're females. I don't pat down females," Tamayo answered.
"Or white middle-aged businessmen? You would pat them down?"
Tamayo's fellow officers maintained that they routinely searched almost everyone with whom they came in contact, regardless of age or race. "That's procedure," declared Off. Ethel Jones, who had arrested Andy Hodge. "I do [a pat-down] on everyone for my safety and for other officers' safety."
She often searches people right down to their socks, Jones explained. "Everyone I pat down, their shoes come off. That's all there is to it," the officer said.
In his deposition, too, Off. John Yavneh described shoe searches as normal procedure. "Recently we found a gun in a person's shoe in the jail, so it became policy." he stated.
"So it's policy to have people remove their shoes?" de Leon persisted.
Yavneh backtracked. "I wouldn't say it's a policy. It's highly recommended.... It's the City of Miami policy for all officers to go home at the end of the night. So if they feel it's necessary to pat [suspects, traffic violators] down, then the policy is to pat them down."
According to Miami Police spokesman Angel Calzadilla, this is not department policy, it's state law. "It's called the Stop and Frisk law; basically an officer is allowed the pat-down of a detained person even if they're not under arrest, so he can be assured of his safety while he's conducting an investigation."
De Leon maintains that it is precisely this law Miami police are violating. In a June 17 letter to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the public defender quoted the law, which permits a police officer to detain someone if he believes the suspect "has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a violation of the criminal laws of this state." In his client's case, police were investigating a possible traffic violation, which de Leon distinguishes from other more serious infractions. The pat-down policy, he went on to assert, was being selectively applied to black youths: "I am concerned with the systemic practice of police officers stopping, frisking, and searching black youngsters for, in reality, no other reason than the color of the youngsters' skin and the location in which the youngsters are located."
The U.S. Attorney's Office forwarded the letter to the FBI for review. It has since been sent to the special litigation section of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. "All I can say is that we've received a complaint, and we'll review it," comments Myron Marlin, a division spokesman.
Rodney Thaxton, associate general counsel of the NAACP, says unconstitutional searches are so pervasive within the black community that they are rarely questioned by the public, much less by police officers themselves. "That's what makes it so terribly hideous," Thaxton observes. "I've heard of them stopping people on the street in Overtown, and while they're searching them, they make them pull their pants down, turn their pockets inside out." Depending on the outcome of the Justice department review, Thaxton says the NAACP will consider filing its own lawsuit.
At least two other complaints citing civil rights violations are pending against the Miami Police Department. Last May Miami police officer Jorge de Armas sued the city and the chief of police, alleging that they retaliated against him after he refused to conduct "arrest sweeps" of city parks in 1990. In his lawsuit, de Armas asserts that the sweeps were discriminatory in nature. "Summons to appear were issued to a substantial number of people found in the predominantly white parks, while most persons found in the predominantly black parks of the City of Miami were arrested," reads the suit, which is pending in circuit court. A complaint filed by police officer Jesus del Rio with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes similar allegations.