Police Broke Rules While Arresting Homeless Woman Who Later Died, Activists Say

In late March, Tabitha Bass woke up to find a police officer handcuffing her boyfriend, Chetwyn Archer. The lean 38-year-old brunette had been sleeping next to Archer on a dead-end corner of NW Second Avenue, a tucked-away spot where a dozen homeless Miamians live.

One cop asked Bass for identification, but she didn't have any. Then, without warning or any offer of shelter, the officer frisked Bass, cuffed her, and took her to jail. When Bass asked why she was being arrested, the officer said, "Obstructing the sidewalk."

The interaction, which was captured in body-camera footage, not only breaks the rules Miami Police are required to follow under the long-standing Pottinger legal case, but also directly contributed to Bass' death a few weeks later, advocates say, after she spent three nights in jail without proper treatment for several serious health issues.

"Tabitha's story illustrates the devastating and tragic consequences of Miami's criminalization of homelessness," says David Peery, a homelessness advocate who works in conjunction with the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Miami's choice to inappropriately address the homeless problem through the criminal justice system means not only that Tabitha wasn't connected with health care and shelter, but the city also worsened Tabitha's medical problems through this wrongful incarceration."

Orlando Rodriguez, a Miami Police Department spokesperson, declined to comment on the case due to an ongoing internal affairs investigation.

Bass' death comes at a moment of heightened tension between the city and its homeless residents. The city agreed to meet with the ACLU last month amid complaints from the homeless about a spike in harassment, but only one day later, commissioners voted unanimously to begin trying to dissolve the landmark legal decision that protects Miami's transient residents.

"You cannot arrest someone for obstructing the sidewalk unless you first warn them to move."

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That decision's roots date to the 1980s, when Miami's homeless population boomed. When police began arresting the homeless for misdemeanors they couldn't avoid committing — such as sleeping on the sidewalk or being in a public park after hours — the ACLU sued in 1988 on behalf of nearly 6,000 homeless people.

After a decade of litigation, the plaintiffs won in the landmark case, called Pottinger v. City of Miami. The 1998 decision forced police to offer homeless people shelter before arresting them on misdemeanors such as blocking sidewalks or sleeping in parks.

But Peery and other advocates say the city is once again moving away from trying to help the homeless and toward charging them with crimes.

New Times reported last month that city workers with power cleaners are regularly descending on areas where homeless people congregate in downtown and Overtown and then trashing their personal belongings — including vital documents such as birth certificates and social security cards. A few weeks later, a local pastor who had been feeding the homeless for more than a decade was stopped by police and told he was not allowed to pass out pizza — a move he claimed was orchestrated by local officials pushing to gentrify the area. (The Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency and police both deny that's the case.)

Since the commission vote in late April, city attorneys have been working on dissolving Pottinger — a push that could eventually land the case back in federal court.

Peery says other recent citywide changes have been hurting the homeless as well. Historically, the police have a "homelessness coordinator" tasked with connecting transient people with services. But the most recent cop with the job, Executive Officer James Bernat, was promoted in February, and MPD still hasn't replaced him.

"Bernat worked with these guys for five years," Peery says. "He was very good about connecting people with the services they needed."

After Bernat left, the city also changed its policy at the homeless shelter Camillus House, which had kept 75 beds reserved for "emergency housing" for up to 90 days. If homeless people took police up on the offer of shelter, they'd be referred to one of those 75 beds and connected to rehabilitation programs and health care at an in-house clinic.

But in March, that changed. The city arranged with the shelter to reserve 10 beds for Pottinger-related referrals, and they're available for only 24 hours. The remaining 65 beds continue to serve as emergency housing, but activists say the change in protocol has taken a toll on the services granted to homeless people. Under the old system, a longer stay was automatic. Now, Peery argues, the default is to "cycle citizens back out onto the street."

“When [the stay] is 24 hours, you can’t do anything. You’re in, and then you’re kicked out the next day,” Peery  says. “You can’t connect to health care, you can barely take a shower in the morning, maybe get some breakfast.” (Gil says he isn't sure why the city asked for the change, but he argues that some homeless people who routinely refuse longer-term stays may prefer the flexibility of 24-hour beds instead.)

Peery says all of those changes — plus the misconduct of two Miami Police officers — came to a tragic confluence in Bass' death.

According to Archer, Bass had been homeless for several years. Originally from New York, she moved to Miami in 2010, where she stayed for four years, before spending 18 months in Georgia. Just less than a year after she returned to Miami in 2015, Bass met Archer — who has a distinctive arrow tattooed on his head — and they began dating.

"It was love at first sight," Archer says. "I'd never felt that way about anyone. We could sit next to each other for four hours in silence, and we didn't have to break out a thesaurus just to figure out what the other person was saying."

The morning of March 27, Officers Carla Gonzalez and Hector Gonzalez, who are a married couple, hauled Bass and Archer to jail and charged them with "obstruction of free passage." On the arrest warrant, the officers wrote Bass had "been offered homeless placement" and "given a warning [on] several occasions."

But when Peery obtained video from the police body cameras, he discovered the two cops had lied. In the footage, neither officer says anything to Archer or Bass about a warning or shelter. In a declaration after the arrest, Bass wrote, "[The officer] did not warn me first. She did not offer to take me to a shelter. She put me in the back of a police car and took me to jail."

The video showed a clear violation of the Pottinger agreement, says Peery. "You cannot arrest someone for obstructing the sidewalk unless you first warn them to move," he says.

Archer and Bass were not affecting pedestrian traffic, Peery argues, because, as the footage shows, the couple was sleeping parallel to the path, against the fence. And they were lying at the corner of a dead-end street, framed by two vacant lots.

"No one walks there," Peery says. "There are no buildings on either side. It's an abandoned area."

Bass spent three nights in jail and was released March 30 after her first appearance in court. By then, she was seriously ill. "She was in a lot of pain," Archer says.

Bass already had long-term health problems and the day before her arrest had been pushed from a moving car, Archer says. Most significant, she had endocarditis, an infection of the heart valve, which is treatable with antibiotics but can be fatal if left unchecked.

On May 2, she stopped breathing while sleeping in a spot not far from where she had been arrested. At first, Archer wasn't worried — Bass had sleep apnea and often had trouble breathing in the night. But when her breaths didn't pick back up, he administered CPR. He had revived her on more than six occasions before, but this time she didn't respond. Someone nearby called 911. Later that day, Bass died of a pulmonary embolism at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Peery says her death could have been prevented. If police had offered her shelter and if she'd had access to a long-term bed and medical services at Camillus House, she might have received the treatment she needed for her conditions.

"If there had been a true arrest of Tabitha," Peery says, "she would have been offered the Pottinger bed. She would have had access to health care... If they had appropriately placed Tabitha into a four-to-six-week Pottinger bed instead of arresting her, Tabitha would still be alive today."