If you don’t live in Miami Gardens, you probably think its police department is no concern of yours.
Ira Glass thinks otherwise.
The host of This American Life used his highly respected program to bring the Miami Herald’s reporting on the out-of-control police department to his international audience of public radio listeners.
The tale was first told to Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown by one Alex Saleh, the owner of the Quickstop convenience store on Northwest 207th Street.
Saleh’s Quickstop is exactly the kind of small business that civic and political leaders claim to love. For years, Saleh’s store provided an element of stability in a high crime, low income neighborhood. Law abiding citizens came to purchase cigarettes and snacks and lingered for gossip and fellowship.
Saleh’s store also provided employment for locals, including an otherwise unemployable young man named Earl Sampson. Sampson had been coming to the Quickstop to escape his chaotic home since he was in middle school and over time came to regard Saleh as a father figure.
“Alex treat me like a son,” Sampson told Glass’ audience. “Sometimes he let me credit stuff, like milk or something, bread or something. I’d go to the store and get it. I’d holler at him. And then he gave me a job, and I started working. I love my job. I love working at it. We’re like a family, though.”
Sampson was not a candidate for college and a six-figure STEM job, but thanks to his own work ethic, and Saleh’s ability to be a mentor and friend, Sampson found dignity and self worth as he grew into a reliable Quickstop employee.
Things went downhill fast in 2007 when city fathers decided that Miami Gardens, population 110,000, needed its own police department.
A “specialized unit” was formed and for a brief moment, citizens and taxpayers like Saleh hoped that a locally focused cop shop would make a dent in the murder rate, which exceeded that of cities many times the size of Miami Gardens.
Instead, the police set about making enemies out of people like Saleh, who wanted very much to be friends.
Crime had never been a problem in Saleh’s Quickstop, yet Miami Gardens’ finest soon began trolling the store for folks who could not fight back when they were rousted out of the Doritos aisle and hauled off to the hoosegow.
One night, Sampson stepped outside to sweep the parking lot. For the crime of doing his job, he was arrested.
Reporter Brown discovered that Sampson’s travails were the tip of an iceberg. Too bad she doesn’t work for the Justice Department, which has funded the Gardens’ reign of terror with 21 “community policing” grants.
There were whistleblowers along the way, but nobody in the public chain of command listened. Gardens police “made contact” with 11,000 children, some as young as five years old, for “suspicious behavior” such as “playing freeze tag, riding bikes, swimming at pools, or hanging out a public park.”
Thanks to a boatload of bad press, Miami Gardens is again safe for Quickstop customers in search of a soft drink or a cold beer Let’s hope it inspires the jobs! jobs! jobs! crowd to figure out how so much tax money could get spent on treating job creators like Alex Saleh so shabbily.
Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant. Column courtesy of Context Florida.