MIAMI – During the first demonstrations in downtown Miami against police brutality toward Blacks, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets as squads of officers ringed police headquarters to protect the building.
Though he stood with fellow officers that night, the message of the march resonated with one Black officer. “I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got some good valid points. I hear ya.’
But the peace soon shattered. Patrol cars erupted in flames. Officers shot tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse throngs demanding change after the death of George Floyd under the choking knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Some marchers threw bottles and rocks. Others hurled curses, some directed specifically at Black faces in the ranks. They were called traitors to their own race.
“It’s like an oxymoron. To me, yes, Derek Chauvin, he’s a scumbag. But is there a need for this to be adversarial?” said the veteran officer. He’s a South Florida native, who like several other African American officers who agreed to speak to the Herald, asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. “I agree with the protesters. But I don’t agree with destroying things. At the end of the day, this is your community.”
Policing while Black always poses its own challenges but more than a half-dozen officers in several MIami-Dade agencies say it’s never been more difficult. They continue to grapple with their own departments’ legacies of systemic racism — while enduring scorn directed at the uniform by protesters and even everyday passers-by.
Even though daily protests have largely remained peaceful in South Florida since that initial May 30 outburst downtown, Black cops continue to be the target of stinging words. During one standoff on Interstate 95 last week, Black Florida Highway Patrol troopers were taunted with calls of “traitor” but also “sellout” and “Uncle Tom.”
The conflicting emotions and divided loyalties are all too familiar for many Black officers, though they clearly are heightened now, said Florida International University Police Capt, Delrish Moss. The highly-respected former Miami major was tapped to overhaul the troubled police department in Ferguson, Mo., for almost three years after race riots erupted there and nationally after a white officer shot and killed an 18-year-old Black man named Michael Brown in 2014.
“A big part of it is being just outside of both worlds — Black and Blue,” said Moss, who is Black. “It’s extremely difficult as an African American officer having these conversations at home and at work.”
Policing in Miami-Dade, like race relations, is complicated and arguably unlike anywhere else in the United States.
Hispanics make up nearly 69 percent of the population, whites just 13 percent. Blacks, including African Americans and those descending from Caribbean nations, make up 15 percent. The ranks of many of the bigger law-enforcement departments generally approximate the demographics of their communities.
At Miami-Dade Police, the eighth-largest department in the United States, about 22 percent of the officers are Black. In the City of Miami, it’s about 27 percent. Miami Gardens, the largest majority-Black cities in Florida, boasts a force a Black force of about nearly 50 percent. Hialeah, the most Hispanic city in Florida which has a population of less than five percent Black, has a police force that also breaks down along those racial lines.
The George Floyd protests have rekindled numerous longstanding concerns among some Black police-officers organizations. Over the last decade, there have been plenty of examples of racism in the ranks, from subtle to blatant.
Just last week, leaders of the city’s Black police union called for the resignation of Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina for allegedly calling Overtown “N.....town” during a presentation 23 years ago. Colina has denied using any racial slurs — and fired back that the union is upset about promotions, despite several Black officers being promoted to senior staff positions.
Ramon Carr, the vice president of Miami Community Police Benevolent Association, also blasted the department for tolerating for years a notorious Hispanic police union official with a penchant for racist social media posts, some about unarmed Blacks killed by police.
“We’re not talking about promotions. We’re talking about Black men dying,” Carr said.
Among Miami-Dade Police, the protests stemming from Floyd’s death spurred a group called the Progressive Officers Club to host a forum on Thursday night. About 40 members attended in what turned into an emotional meeting, some talking about their own sympathies for protesters, others planning to push for recruiting more Black officers and getting them into specialized units.
One of the prevailing themes: between the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement protests and the daily police work, officers are worn down.
“We went from heroes to villains in a matter of 24 hours at one point,” said Miami-Dade Officer Robin Pinkard, a member of the group who is African American “The Blue Angels were doing flyovers for first responders. Now, people are looking at you funny.”
Caribbean Black officers have also felt the tug of loyalties. North Miami Police Officer Stefane Hyppolite — a community liaison in a city with one of the largest Haitian-American populations in South Florida — said he’s gotten dirty looks in recent weeks.
“Not in a million years would I have thought things would come to what they come to,” he said. “It’s very hard as a man of color for me. It’s almost like I am representing two different groups that are at odds with each other.”
For many Black officers, the complaints of racism in 2020 are visceral reminders of their own experiences, rooted in police discrimination that spans decades in Miami-Dade.
Miami Police Sgt. Malcolm Moyse today runs a community-policing unit in Overtown, the historically black neighborhood that in the 1950s boasted its own “colored” officers precinct — African-American cops could only patrol certain areas, and were not allowed to arrest white people.
As a teen in Overtown in the 1980s, Moyse was falsely accused by a Miami cop of robbing a white woman, although he was not arrested. A few years later, an officer pulled a gun on Moyse when he walked to his job tending the bridge on Northwest 12th Avenue.
When Moyse became a cop in 2000, he ran into that same officer who’d drawn his weapon. “He apologized then and there,” Moyse said. “I made him remember it.”
AN UGLY HISTORY OF RACISM
Disturbances sparked by police uses of force are nothing new for Black Miami. Over the past four decades, major riots sparked by the death of Black men by police have broken out three times — most notably in 1980, after four white officers were acquitted in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie.
Black officers have watched as other racially charged episodes have roiled departments across Miami-Dade County.
Some are little-remembered today, like when the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1990s threatened to sue Hialeah Police for its hiring practices; the city agreed to hire 30 Black Officers. Records the department submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show Hialeah is now down to nine Black officers.
More recently, in 2013, the Miami police department was put under federal oversight after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation determined that a slew of shootings of black men were excessive, or the result of poor training. In 2015, a group of Miami Beach police officers came under fire for racist and crude e-mails. The same year, North Miami Beach cops were criticized for using mugshots of black men as target practice at a firing range.
In 2018, the police chief in tiny Biscayne Park got five years in prison after his officers began framing people of color for crimes they did not commit.
A CULTURE CHANGE NEEDED
The calls for change by protesters are not lost on many Black officers. Some in Miami-Dade say more Black officers need to be promoted into the upper ranks, to help change the culture of policing.
“We’ve lost the trust of the community. We need to disband these specialized bulls(asterisk)(asterisk)t units and put cops back on the road, to create relationships,” said one veteran Black Miami-Dade police officer who asked not to be identified by name. “We’ve lost that sense of community.”
Miami Police Sgt. Stanley Jean-Poix, the president of the Community PBA, said far too often he’s been ordered to take part in crime sweeps of predominantly Black West Coconut Grove — and told to stop at a specific streets that are mostly white. He called the practice racist — essentially busting the crack houses and ignoring the people who keep them profitable.
Still, he’s cautious about scaling back as much as some protesters would like.
“As an officer you want the community to back you. But some of those units are needed,” Jean-Poix said. “You never want the bad guy to have more firepower than you have.”
Jean-Poix said he would prefer the creation of more encompassing databases that the public and other law-enforcement agencies can use to monitor officers who use too much force, banning choke holds and and offering more training for more de-escalation.
For Moyse, the Overtown sergeant, he hopes more police officers will lend their voice to fighting for the systemic issues that go beyond interactions with police — like unequal pay and housing discrimination.
“I”m really just hopeful that some type of change will come. I really feel it’s a shame, some of things we have to fight for as Black men,” Moyse said. “When I do take this uniform off, I’m driving while black. I’ve been pulled over for no reason. You can be frustrated with it. But because I’m a patient person everything has worked out for the best.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Carli Teproff contributed to this story.