Privacy SOS

Who watches the watchers? A convenience store surveils police, captures laundry list of misconduct

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Guest post by ACLU of Massachusetts fellow Nashwa Gewaily

The above video shows a policeman grabbing Earl Sampson and arresting him for trespassing at the 207 Quickstop convenience store in Miami Gardens.  You might ask why a trespasser would take out the garbage at a place he has no right to be.  You might also wonder why nobody in the video reacts to the officer plucking Earl out of the store, as though it were routine.  In fact, it has been: Earl Sampson has been arrested 62 times for trespassing, usually at 207 Quickstop – where he’s employed as a clerk. 

Twenty-eight year old Sampson has been stopped and questioned by police 258 times in the last four years – sometimes as many as four times a day, – searched 100 times, and jailed 56 times.  Yet, his rap sheet consists mainly of charges prosecutors never even pursued, and marijuana possession has been his most serious conviction. 

He is one of hundreds of predominantly black store employees and customers who have been targeted for arrest, harassment, and intimidation under Miami Gardens’s “zero tolerance” program and stop-and-frisk policies.  The program gives police sweeping powers to use stop-and-frisks and arrests on the property of participating stores, in an effort to combat crime by cracking down on minor infractions such as trespassing and open-container violations.  Yesterday, the Florida NAACP issued a call for the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of a “pattern or practice” of intimidation, racial profiling, and misconduct by the Miami Gardens Police Department.   

A unique twist on this unfortunately common story of abusive law enforcement practices is the use of surveillance technology to empower, rather than oppress, those targeted for police intimidation.

Quickstop owner Alex Saleh decided to install 15 surveillance cameras in and around his store to protect himself and his customers – not from robberies, which he hasn’t experienced, but from the police.  Saleh initially cooperated in the “zero tolerance” program that was presented to him as a way to help the crime-plagued neighborhood.  But, after watching cops accost his customers, citing them for trifling infractions, performing suspicionless pat-downs, sticking their hands in customers’ pockets, hauling his working employees away, and dismissing his objections to unannounced store searches, Saleh withdrew participation and took down the “zero tolerance” sign from his storefront.  Police not only continued their searches anyway, but, according to Saleh, put the sign back up in his store themselves against his will.   

Turning the cameras on the cops, Saleh’s videos

show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.

This clip illustrates the type of day-to-day harassment and abuse from which Saleh sought to protect his customers. Here, an officer approaches a woman outside the store, grabs her purse, and dumps out every last item onto the pavement, before kicking around the woman’s belongings and walking away.

Such extensive and explicit documentation not only serves to inculpate individual police officers and call into question zero-tolerance law enforcement policies, but also exculpates individuals who would otherwise likely have a hard time proving their innocence.  Here are a few examples from this case study in the value of ordinary individuals using “technology for liberty” in asserting their rights:

  • Exculpating arrestee by proving police lied on police report: “One video, recorded on June 26, 2012, shows Sampson, clearly stocking coolers, being interrupted by MGPD Sgt. William Dunaske, who orders him to put his hands behind his back, and then handcuffs him, leads him out of the store and takes him to jail for trespassing.

More than once, Saleh has told police that Sampson is an employee and is not trespassing.

On that June arrest report, obtained by The Herald, police explained the trespass arrest, saying that Sampson was arrested for loitering outside the store when in fact the video, which has a date and time stamp, clearly shows him being handcuffed and arrested inside the store.”

  • Excluding evidence as fruits of an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment: “Another employee, Ron Picart, was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm. The case was never filed by the state attorney because the officer, Dunaske, found the firearm under the store’s counter during an illegal search, which was video recorded.”  Without video evidence of regular suspicionless, warrantless searches of Saleh’s store, it would be very easy for police to claim that items were discovered in plain view, rather than a result of illegal snooping, for example. 
  • Supporting allegations of police retaliation for asserting rights:  Footage from a police dashboard camera and from Saleh’s camera outside of his store combine to reveal what can be fairly characterized as cops intimidating and harassing Saleh in retaliation for his suit against Miami Gardens PD for intimidation and harassment.  After serving notice of his intent to sue, Saleh found himself being followed by a police car as he drove out of his parking lot and was stopped by the officer a few blocks later, purportedly because his tag light was out.  Following the arrival of two additional squad cars (for a total of 6 officers on the scene), Saleh was cited for a bad tag light among other trivial infractions.  Before letting him go, a sergeant on the scene allegedly told Saleh, “I’m going to get you, mother-fucker.”

Dashboard cameras among the three squad cars capture the atmosphere of intimidation.  Saleh’s own camera captures images of his truck pulling out of the parking lot that evening, working tag light and all. 

Of course, Americans shouldn’t have to install $7,000 worth of video surveillance equipment to protect themselves in the face of police authority and power.  We shouldn’t have to worry about being vindictively arrested; racially, ethnically, or religiously profiled; subjected to intimidation and harassment; frisked and humiliated on the streets or at our jobs; or monitored and retaliated against for claiming our constitutional rights. 

But, when it happens – and it happens a lot– it’s good to be reminded of the tools at our disposal and our right to use them.  As a former police commissioner has stated, police officers “know that in a swearing match between a [drug] defendant and a police officer, the judge always rules in favor of the officer.”  The same predilection typically goes for juries and other members of the public, who are generally inclined to believe that law enforcement authorities are telling the truth.  That’s why “[t]he right of citizens to record the policeis a critical check and balance. It creates an independent record of what took place in a particular incident, free from accusations of bias, lying or faulty memory. It is no accident that some of the most high-profile cases of police misconduct have involved video and audio records.”

In Alex Saleh’s case, his 27 videos of police misconduct will significantly bolster the federal civil rights lawsuit he and a group of his customers and employees brought last week against Miami Gardens.  His enterprising response to intimidation is a shining example of how we can use technology to enhance, rather than contract, our civil liberties and constitutional rights. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.