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Pitts: Lights, camera, corruption

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

You want to know the worst part?

It isn’t the incident where a police officer stopped a man at the 207 Quickstop convenience store and threw his purchases – cans of Red Bull – to the sidewalk.

It isn’t the incident where an officer stopped a woman outside that Miami Gardens store, pawed through her purse, then emptied the contents onto the ground and kicked at them.

It isn’t the dozens of times Earl Sampson – never convicted of anything more serious than possession of marijuana – has been arrested for trespassing while working as a clerk at the selfsame store.

It isn’t even that many of these crimes against conscience and Constitution were recorded on video.

No, the worst part is that police knew they were being recorded – and didn’t care. In fact, writes Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, “They relished it, taunting the store’s owner by waving open beer cans and cups, taken from customers, directly in front of the cameras.”

That owner, Alex Saleh, installed the 15 cameras last year, not to protect himself from robbers – he said he’s never been robbed – but to protect himself and his customers in this working class, predominantly black South Florida enclave, from repeated police harassment.

The incidents detailed at the top, by the way, are but the tip of the garbage barge. To tell the full story of illegal searches, racial slurs, profiling, intimidation and threats Saleh, his employees and his customers say they have endured under the rubric of “zero tolerance” policing would require more space than is available here. Saleh, a Venezuelan immigrant of Palestinian heritage, and a group of his employees and customers recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.

For what it’s worth, the police chief and mayor of this town are both black. One wishes that made more of a difference. But the behaviors alleged here spring from attitudes and perceptions that are structural, an abiding belief that you need not observe as many niceties in policing certain people in certain neighborhoods, don’t have to be as punctilious about legal rights and simple respect because really, who cares? As quiet as it’s kept, black people are no more impervious to being co-opted by that belief system than anyone else. We all have jobs to do. We all have to put food on the table.

All that said, it should tell you something about the pervasive moral corruption of that system that these police apparently felt free to do the things they did in the full knowledge that their misbehavior was being recorded.

It’s not just that they didn’t care. They didn’t expect you to care, either. One is reminded of something actor CCH Pounder, playing Det. Claudette Wyms, said in the first episode of “The Shield” when she is asked about bad cop Vic Mackey.

“What people want these days,” she said, wearily, “is to make it to their cars without getting mugged, come home from work, see their stereo is still there, hear about some murder in the barrio, find out the next day the police caught the guy. If having all those things means some cop roughs up some [black] or some [Hispanic] in the ghetto, well, as far as most people are concerned, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell.”

There is bitter truth in that speech. The willingness of those of us who are not immediately affected to look the other way as other people’s neighborhoods are occupied, other people’s rights violated, other people’s children shot under dubious circumstances, is glaringly obvious – particularly to those other people.

But the apparent misbehavior of the police in Miami Gardens ought to induce at least the fair-minded of us to reconsider that willful blindness in light of a simple question:

If this is what some police do when they know they’re being watched, what might they do when they know they’re not?

• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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