People have a clear constitutional right and a civic duty to report crimes they witness to the police. But what happens when the police are the ones committing the crime?
Such was the case for Harold Strickland, who witnessed two undercover police officers chase, then beat and kick another man after he was handcuffed and on the ground.
Strickland, 45, was walking in South Beach one evening in March 2009, talking to his sister on his cell phone, when he noticed two men, who were undercover Miami Beach officers, chase a young gay Hispanic man through the parking lot next to Flamingo Park on Michigan Avenue, drag him to the ground, and beat him. Strickland hung up with his sister and called 911, reporting to the emergency dispatch officer at the Miami Beach Police Department (MBPD) that someone was being beaten by the police officers in the parking lot, next to a parked car. The dispatcher asked for Strickland’s location and asked him to walk closer to the scene to read the license plate on the car.
But there was no license plate. And Strickland had caught the attention of the two men who were beating Doe. The men approached Strickland, took his cell phone and verbally assaulted him with anti-gay epithets. The officers spewed insults: “We’re sick of all the f—ing fags in this neighborhood,” pushed Strickland to the ground and tied his hands behind his back.
Strickland told them why he was walking up to them and calling 911, but the officers ignored his explanation . After one officer continued taunting Strickland with anti-gay remarks, Strickland said he would report them. In response, the police officers threatened Strickland by telling him that “guys like him disappear every day.”
Strickland and Doe were transported to MBPD headquarters where the verbal abuse continued. After first questioning what charges they could charge Strickland with, the two officers charged Strickland with loitering and prowling.
On February 3, the ACLU of Florida announced its intent to sue the City of Miami Beach and the two officers on behalf of Harold Strickland.
“Gay men have been reportedly targeted by Miami Beach police near Flamingo Park for decades. Often, police target gay men walking near Flamingo Park for nothing more than looking ‘too gay,'” said the ACLU‘s Robert Rosenwald. Furthermore, “The issue here is not just the violation of Mr. Strickland’s rights as a gay man.” said Ray Taseff, cooperating attorney and co-counsel. “All people have a clear constitutional right and a civic duty to report police misconduct. When police arrest individuals for reporting police misconduct, the public’s faith in law enforcement suffers.”
Thanks to additional efforts by SAVE Dade, a local organization whose mission is to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination, the City Manager called a meeting with leadership that resulted in an order by City of Miami Beach Police Chief for an internal affairs investigation and a review of the reports filed by the two officers. According to a statement released by the Miami Beach Police Department “a decision was made to reassign both officers involved in the reported incident to administrative duties effective immediately and pending the conclusion of the investigation.” The officers are off the streets and behind desks now. On February 9, the Miami Beach LGBT Business Enhancement Committee will be meeting with the Chief of Police, Carlos Noriega, in an open forum to ensure that the proper measures are taken to prevent a recurrence of this behavior by Miami Beach police.
The incident has shed light on anti-gay sentiment within the Miami Beach Police Department, and the ACLU of Florida is equally concerned with the retaliation against those who report police misconduct. It’s our hope that our lawsuit will bring justice to those who have been victimized by this kind of abuse.