Asking America's Police Officers to Explain Abusive Cops
Revisiting the story of a man arrested at his job for "trespassing"—and the cops who paid no price for wrongly detaining him dozens of times.
The radio show This American Life recently broadcast a number of stories on policing. They're collected in the episodes "Cops See It Differently," Part One and Part Two.
The episodes illuminate why police and their critics often see the same events very differently. For example, one anecdote concerns a man in the back of a police car who told his arresting officers that he was having trouble breathing. They ignored him. He died. Many who watched the video saw callous cops who placed no value on a human being's life. But police officers who watched the same tape saw two cops who thought that their seemingly healthy arrestee was faking, as so many people fabricate medical conditions to avoid being taken to jail.
These differences in perspective are useful to understand, even if one believes that a given incident is clearly the fault of the police or the person they're arresting.
In that spirit, I'd like to focus on "Inconvenience Store," the This American Life segment where the behavior of the police officers struck me as most difficult to comprehend. I'll relay what happened to a man named Earl Sampson in Miami Gardens, Florida, and invite any willing police officers to write in with their thoughts.
Most of the action takes place at a Quickstop convenience store. Back in 2008, police approached its owner, Alex Saleh. Did he want to make the Quickstop part of "The Zero-Tolerance Zone Trespassing Program"? Saleh said that he was "pro-police, pro-cop," and agreed. A sign to that effect was posted in the parking lot.
But soon, he says, cops started harassing his customers, especially the black ones, when they were doing nothing more than standing in line waiting to make a purchase. Set that aside. Our interest is in Earl Sampson, a black employee at the store.
Here's what happened to him, according to This American Life producer Miki Meek's reporting:
Meek: Before long, it wasn't just the customers being questioned. The police started including a guy named Earl. Alex paid him to do odd jobs around the store. One night, right before closing, Alex sent Earl out to the parking lot with a broom and a dustpan. When he didn't come back, Alex want out to check on him.
Saleh: I see only the dustpan and the broom. And I don't see Earl.
Meek: It wasn't like Earl to walk off the job. The next day when he arrived at the store, Alex asked him about it.
Saleh: Earl said, I was in jail last night. I said, why? He said, for trespassing.
Meek: Trespassing at the store—Earl says he was charged with trespassing where he works.
Saleh: I was upset. I was burning myself inside. I was, like, this is impossible.
Meek: Alex is more than just a boss to Earl, more like a father figure to him. Earl has some mental health issues, and in general, he has a kid-like quality. He first started coming to the Quickstop years before, when he was 14. He had just moved around the corner, but his family life was rough. And his mom couldn't really take care of him. So Alex started keeping an eye on him. Here's Earl.
Earl: That's why I started hanging around the store, you know, it's because Alex treat me like a son, though. 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.
Meek: That incident with the police, where Alex walked outside to check on Earl at the end of the night and found only a dustpan and broom, that happened two more times that month.
Earl: They'll like, come and grab me from, like, outside. Like, they won't go in the store and ask Alex or nothing, though. They would just grab me, put me in a police car, take me down to jail, you know? I'm like, well, I work here, though. You feel me?
Meek: So you would say, I work here. And what would they say?
Earl: Come on. You ain't supposed to be here. You trespassing here. I'd be like, ask my boss. I would be telling, ask my boss. They're still, oh, we don't care. They'll take me down.
Meek: Each time the police picked up Earl, they'd book him into the county jail. He'd spend the night there, go to court the next day, and there he'd be given a choice. Plead guilty to trespassing and get out of jail right away, or he could fight the trespassing charge, but it would be a hassle. And it would be expensive. He'd have to hire a lawyer and post bond and wait for a trial date.
So Earl always pleaded guilty.
To jail someone once for trespassing at their job is a miscarriage of justice. To do so repeatedly, over the objections of their employer, who owns the relevant store, is an absurdity. And this isn't something that happened just a few different times. It happened so often that the store owner finally complained to the police department.
But the complaints didn't help. Quite the contrary:
Earl was now getting picked up everywhere, all over town.
Three years into the program, he had been arrested 63 times and stopped another 99 times. On the police reports, the reason was almost always the same. Earl seemed, quote, "suspicious." Suspicious while waiting at the bus stop or playing basketball or buying food or walking to a public restroom-- only once did Earl run. In the arrest report, the officer wrote, quote, "Earl stated that he was running because he was tired of the police arresting him for no reason."
After that, Earl says it was just easier to give himself up.
Incredibly, the police department's behavior then grew even more egregious:
Meek: ... after four years of Earl getting stopped constantly, everywhere he went, Earl and Alex had tried all the normal things you do when you're having problems with the police. So Alex came up with a plan—a pretty extreme one.
Saleh: I explained to Earl. I said, Earl, I think the better place for you to live is inside the store. You know, we bring mattress, stuff like that, and I told him, you live here. You sleep here. Anything you need to eat and drink at night when you're here, you can, you know, you can get it.
Meek: Way in the back corner of the store, at the end of an aisle, there's an 11-by-11 foot room built out of plywood and sheet rock. And inside that room is a mattress and a sink for Earl to wash up in. If you were picking up laundry detergent or toilet paper, you'd be standing right next to where he sleeps.
But even that didn't prevent the police from coming in and getting Earl. Not long after his room was built, he got arrested again for trespassing at the store. Earl didn't immediately take a plea this time. Alex doesn't know why, but Earl spent 20 days in jail. And the judge issued a stay away warning from the store. Alex's next move—he bought a surveillance camera. In fact, he bought four. He decided that that was the only way anyone would believe that he wasn't making this stuff up.
In time, Saleh had 16 surveillance cameras running. So in addition to arrest reports proving that a man was repeatedly jailed for "trespassing" at his place of employment, there is ample video of police officers harassing both customers at the Quickstop and Earl Sampson, even after he was literally living in the store at the owner's request. There is no excuse for this behavior and no doubt that it happened. A man's most basic rights were repeatedly and willfully violated by multiple police officers, with a paper trail and videotaped evidence to identify them.
This has long since become public knowledge—the Miami Herald wrote about it in 2013. "Miami Gardens police have arrested Sampson 62 times for one offense: trespassing," the newspaper reported. "Almost every citation was issued at the same place: the 207 Quickstop, a convenience store on 207th Street in Miami Gardens."
So what happened to the police officers who targeted an innocent man, repeatedly jailing him for nothing more than being at his own place of employment?
Nothing, according to This American Life:
Meek: Anthony Chapman, the police commander whose officers repeatedly harassed Alex's customers and Earl, he's still at the police department. He denies all allegations against him and declined to be interviewed. Martin Santiago, the sergeant who Alex says threatened him at a traffic stop, he also still works there, as does William Dunaske, the officer who pulled Earl out of the store in that very first surveillance video. The city declined to make Santiago and Dunaske available for comment. Michael Malone, the officer who threw and kicked customers' personal things, he did leave the force, but it was voluntary. An internal affairs report concedes misconduct, but Malone was never disciplined for his actions. He could not be reached for comment.
It's been more than a year and a half since Earl was last stopped, but he doesn't feel safe. His world is still a paranoid one. He still lives at the store and rarely goes out.
And when he does, he gets scared.
Listening to that story, I heard evidence of multiple cops engaged in serious, willful misconduct over several years. But that isn't what troubled me most. I know that most cops would never behave so egregiously toward an innocent. What I found alarming was the fact that those other cops didn't stop or report the bad apples.
In fact, even after higher-ranking officers were alerted to Sampson's experience, that did not put an end to his repeated jailing. Neither a public defender nor a judge was able to spot or stop this miscarriage of justice either. No one inside the system successfully exposed or remedied the abusive situation. Things only changed for Sampson when the store owner got video evidence and took it to the media. And even then, the egregious misbehavior of the police officers went unpunished.
Most of the perpetrators are still on the job.
What do police officers make of this story? How do they explain the fact that such abusive behavior continued for so long? What do they regard as an appropriate punishment? What would they suggest to guard against similar abuses elsewhere? What would they do if they encountered fellow officers treating a man this way? I don't mean to suggest that police are of one mind about this or any other controversy, or that Miami Gardens reflects how police behave everywhere. But when the public reads or listens to stories that document egregious police abuses, it is rare to encounter any members of the police community who express alarm, or champion reforms, or denounce the bad apples, or articulate why they have a different view than the conventional wisdom.
If you're a police officer, maybe no one asked for your opinion on a case like this before. I invite any of your thoughts. Those willing to share should email email@example.com—I'll publish responses without names unless otherwise requested.