As Raymond Johnson stood on a curb near his Liberty City home last month chatting with his brother-in-law, he didn't think he was breaking the law. But a Miami patrolman arrested Johnson for standing in a "well-known drug area," according to a June 17 police report. The official charge was loitering and prowling.
"It seems like they just had nothing else to do," recalls Johnson, a 37-year-old short-order cook. "They were just messing with people for no reason."
The next day a circuit court judge dismissed the charge against Johnson. This pattern of events has unfolded at least twenty times during the last two months: Police detain a black male in a high-crime area, cart him in, then charges are quickly dropped. Now civil rights advocates -- and a Department of Justice official -- declare the cops went too far.
"Essentially, African Americans were being arrested for standing on their sidewalks in their neighborhoods," says John de Leon, president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There was no probable cause to believe they were involved in any unlawful behavior."
Police reports of the dismissed cases were all stamped "Weed and Seed," the title of one of the Justice Department's latest efforts in the war on drugs. The federal program began in 1991 to weed out the criminal element in targeted high-crime areas and to plant the seed of new economic opportunity. Today it is followed in about 100 American cities.
The Miami campaign, which started in 1996, targets a 280-square-block area in Liberty City, with a budget of about $300,000 per year. Most of the money has been spent on training citizens and developing employment opportunities. Among its achievements is the creation of a computer training center in the Belafonte Tacolcy Center on NW Ninth Avenue.
Though Miami police deny they have increased their arrest rates, some local black activists believe the program has led officers to be overzealous. Max Rameau, who heads the Coalition Against Police Brutality and Harassment, was among the first to alert the ACLU to Weed and Seed abuses. "We have record numbers of black men in prison because of programs like this," Rameau insists.
Johnson's case was typical of police overreaching, Rameau says. Johnson was six blocks from his home and doing nothing illegal when officers swooped in. The fact that he had been arrested (but never convicted) several times over the past decade for crimes ranging from trespassing to marijuana sales didn't help matters.
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Two weeks ago de Leon conveyed his concerns to Patrick White, special counsel to the Justice Department in Miami and chairman of the local Weed and Seed steering committee. "I agree. I would have thrown out [the loitering arrest] too," White says. "We're putting safeguards in place to make sure this doesn't happen again. I'm glad John brought this to our attention."
White says he spoke with Miami Police Maj. Gerald Darling two weeks ago and they agreed that a police lieutenant would review future loitering arrests. Darling contends there is no relation between the Weed and Seed program and the loitering charges. The Weed and Seed logo on arrest forms merely helps police track arrests in the area for comparison to those before inception of the program, he states. Police are emphasizing so-called quality of life crimes -- loitering, graffiti, public drinking -- throughout the city, not just in the Weed and Seed area, he adds.
For the next ten days White says he'll monitor loitering arrests in the Weed and Seed area. So will the ACLU, which has not yet threatened a lawsuit but hasn't dismissed that option, says de Leon.
"The ACLU is not against lawful actions by police," de Leon remarks. "We do take umbrage when police officers are involved in violating the rights of people who aren't doing anything wrong.