July 12, 2020
‘Policing in Florida is tied to racism.’ Activists discuss Miami’s police brutality
By Alex Daugherty

For nearly two weeks, protest organizers in Miami have argued that police departments in South Florida are part of a larger problem with racism in police forces while law enforcement leaders have countered that they are committed to rooting out small numbers of bad cops within their ranks. 

On Wednesday, the two groups got a chance to address each other directly during an online forum hosted by Miami Rep. Donna Shalala that included Miami protest organizers, police chiefs, a police union representative and elected officials, all grappling with George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and ongoing protests in South Florida against police brutality and systemic racism.

Dwight Bullard, one of the protest organizers who is also a former Democratic state senator and the current New Florida Majority political director, called the institution of policing “flawed” in a message he sent to the participants.

“You have a faulty foundation,” he wrote. “We can’t address the issue by replacing the windows.”

Coral Gables police chief Ed Hudak responded — this time publicly on Shalala’s Facebook page — by saying that calling policing flawed perpetuates the idea that “we’re never going to get out of this. If you give the 99 percent the chance to do things right, we will weed [bad cops] out.”

But Democratic state Rep. Dotie Joseph, who represents Little Haiti, said police need to remember that average citizens wield far less power than armed police officers during face-to-face interactions.

“We have to understand that it’s not equal,” Joseph said. “When you have an institution which, truth be told, way back in the day, used to be a cover for the KKK to proactively go and harass and do things to black people...we can’t forget that context.”

Shalala called the discussion “the start of a good conversation.”

“We’ve got to think through what we we really want in our community,” she said. “We’ve got to admit that the fear on the part of our black community is a fear on the part of young police officers too. That mutual fear produces an unhealthy situation. It’s not just the police, it’s the whole criminal justice system.”

The police officials on the call, including Hudak, South Florida Police Benevolent Association president Steadman Stahl and Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina, argued that Miami’s police departments are able to punish and fire racists, and that the demographic makeup of Miami-Dade’s police departments largely mirrors the county’s demographics.

But Bullard and Joseph said the institutions themselves are rooted in racism, and that trying to punish individual officers accused of wrongdoing ignores the longstanding mistrust the black community feels toward police. 

“The institution of policing in Florida is inextricably tied to racism, bottom line,” Bullard said. “The institution itself begins with paid slave catchers...in the state being sponsored by white landowners to pursue black bodies. People always say that’s hyperbole and you’re wrong, but we built policing on policing black bodies.”

Bullard also noted that a phrase President Donald Trump’s wrote in a tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was first said by Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in 1967. Twitter prevented users from viewing the president’s tweet without reading a brief notice that the post glorified violence, the first time it had applied such a warning to a public official’s tweets.

The Miami discussion occurred as George Floyd’s brother, Philonise, testified to the House Judiciary Committee in Washington in favor of a bill developed by House Democrats to change police tactics nationally. Among other things, the bill would ban choke holds like the one that killed Floyd. 

Miami Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a member of the Judiciary Committee, was one of the lawmakers who questioned Philonise Floyd and other experts. At the hearing, she played video of Dyma Loving, a 26-year-old Miami woman who was tackled by Miami police in 2019 after she called the police to report a neighbor brandishing a shotgun during an argument. 

“I think the main point is highlighting police brutality across the country but also showing the American people that we have heard their demands for justice and action,” Mucarsel-Powell said in an interview. “There has been systemic racism in police departments for decades and it’s extremely important for people to see that we’re taking action.” 

Democrats hope to vote on their legislation this month. Senate Republicans, led by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, are drafting their own plan that will likely be less expansive than the Democrats’ proposal.

During the discussion with local leaders, Colina, the Miami police chief, praised his department for employing a police force that is 28% black in a city that is 17% black. But he argued that Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and widespread protests have created a perception that local law enforcement isn’t representative of the community. 

Joseph called the diversity in the police force “a starting point, but that’s not where it ends.” 

“A lot of what we see with systemic racism goes beyond the numbers,” Joseph said, adding that the culture of police departments “promotes racism” even when the departments themselves are relatively diverse.

But Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who was also part of the online forum, said Miami’s Hispanic community and Hispanic police officers often have racist attitudes toward African Americans. 

“Let’s not kid ourselves. We have to have a reckoning with our Hispanic community on our racism,” Taddeo said.