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Flying While Black

More than 54 million Americans will travel this Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA, and inevitably a lot of us will encounter hassles on the highways or in the airports. But some of us get hassled more than others, and not just on holidays.

It will come as no surprise to any African-American reader that if you drive, or fly commercially, while black, you are apt to have an unwanted encounter with law enforcement despite doing absolutely nothing to warrant it. A lot of white Americans are aware of this too, at least on an intellectual level. But this sort of thing very rarely happens to us. It doesn’t happen very often to nonwhite friends, relatives or colleagues when they are in our company, either. For the most part we only hear about it, or read about it, or see it on a cellphone video or in body camera footage. Too often, we see such encounters only after something has gone horribly wrong.

Last month one of my closest business associates, as well as a good friend, had such an encounter at the Fort Lauderdale airport. He was questioned, and his carry-on baggage was searched, by officers who apparently were plainclothes sheriff’s deputies. This is our hometown airport, a place both he and I use often. However, it is safe to assume that I will never have an experience there like the one Shomari Hearn, my firm’s managing vice president, had as he waited at the gate to board his JetBlue flight to Los Angeles.

After Shomari told me what happened, I wrote to the Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, to express my outrage and to ask him to investigate what happened. That letter appears in full below. I have not heard yet from Israel; if I do, or if he comments on this post or in another public forum, I will update this piece. I copied JetBlue’s chief operating officer on that letter, as well as every member of the Broward County and Fort Lauderdale city commissions. Within 24 hours, I heard from an aide to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, who expressed sympathy for Shomari’s experience and promised to bring it to the mayor’s attention. However, the aide noted (as I knew) that the airport is under the county’s jurisdiction, rather than that of the city. At this writing I have not heard from the other recipients.

Last week was a busy one for government in Broward. We had an election recount going on as I wrote this. Probably more to the point, the sheriff was due to appear before an investigation board looking into what went wrong in last February’s massacre at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, where one of Israel’s deputies was seen on video cowering outside. By some accounts, others also held back until it no longer mattered.

Israel’s department also was criticized for its performance in a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport itself that left five people dead in January 2017. The law enforcement response was chaotic at best, sending hundreds of passengers scurrying across the tarmac to look for safety on their own.

But while it can’t seem to get its act together to respond effectively to mass shootings, the Broward Sheriff’s Office seems to be all over the case of a respected, mature professional who holds TSA Precheck clearance and elite frequent flier status waiting to board an aircraft bound for California. Way to go, folks.

With all the bad press he has experienced, I doubt Israel will get past the next election for his job. His departure alone isn’t likely to change anything, however. Every African-American reader knows this, too. I may not be able to change it either, but I am certainly going to enlist everyone I can think of in order to try. The letter below is where we start.


Dear Sheriff Israel:

On October 17, a senior executive in my company – a respected member of the Broward County business community with whom I have worked for 20 years – was waiting to board a flight at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when he was publicly confronted, interrogated and had his bags examined by two individuals who we believe were plainclothes BSO officers. This appears to have been an instance of racial profiling.

My name is Larry M. Elkin. I am the founder and president of Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC, a national financial advisory firm headquartered in the AutoNation Building in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I am writing to bring this incident to your attention and to express my personal shock and dismay at this unprofessional conduct on the part of law enforcement officers in our community.

The events in question took place at approximately 5 p.m. in the vicinity of Gate F1 in Terminal 3. My colleague, Shomari Hearn, was waiting to board JetBlue Flight #101 to LAX, whose scheduled departure was 5:13 p.m. He held boarding pass #0XZKHZ. As a frequent flier with JetBlue’s Mosaic status, he was near the gate and would have been in the first group to board after passengers with disabilities were accommodated. These events, obviously, took place in the sterile section of the airport after Mr. Hearn and his carry-on baggage were examined by T.S.A. agents. Mr. Hearn is enrolled in the Pre-Check program and has undergone a background check and fingerprint screening to qualify for expedited screening. As indicated below, the officer primarily involved in this incident may have observed Mr. Hearn when he went through the Pre-Check security checkpoint.

Mr. Hearn is 43 years old and is the managing vice president of my firm. He also serves as chief compliance officer of our registered investment adviser affiliate, which has $1.4 billion under management for clients across the United States. After joining my organization in New York in 1998, Mr. Hearn founded the Fort Lauderdale office (later headquarters) in 2005. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Fort Lauderdale program and also has served as co-chair of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce Small Business Committee. He is a Certified Financial Planner certificant as well as an enrolled agent qualified to practice before the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Hearn graduated from Duke University in 1997 with a degree in economics, and is active in the Duke alumni network. He resides in Broward County and is based in Fort Lauderdale, although as noted he travels frequently.

On the date in question, Mr. Hearn observed a bald Caucasian man with a goatee, wearing a sweatshirt with the name of a local high school, talking on a cell phone near the TSA checkpoint. He particularly noticed this man because Mr. Hearn’s daughter attends the same school. He saw the man look at him, but assumed he might have seemed familiar due to some event or encounter at the school.

Later on in the gate area, as the flight was being prepared for boarding, Mr. Hearn noticed the same man in conversation with another man and two women. The man appeared to stare at Mr. Hearn. At a subsequent point in time, this individual approached Mr. Hearn very closely, flashed a badge identifying himself as an officer, and aggressively questioned Mr. Hearn (in public view of the other passengers and airline personnel) about his travel plans. Where was he going? What was the nature of his trip? What line of business was he in? How much cash was he carrying? The man also asked Mr. Hearn whether his partner – who was one of the women Mr. Hearn had observed earlier – could look through his carryon.

Mr. Hearn was aware of his right to decline this consent search. However, he had a perfectly reasonable concern that if he did so, the officers would at least ensure that he missed his flight, which was the last one of the day to Los Angeles. Mr. Hearn chose to permit the search and to answer the officer’s questions purely to avoid inconveniencing the business associates who expected his timely arrival in California. Of course, upon finding nothing of interest in the carry-on baggage of Mr. Hearn, the officers moved on.

Mr. Hearn is African-American. As noted above, I have worked with him for two decades, and I have placed him in the highest positions of responsibility and trust in my company. I also know him personally to be unfailingly polite, considerate and kind. There is no chance – I stress, there is absolutely zero possibility – that he did anything to provoke such attention from law enforcement, apart from the fact that he was attempting to fly while black.

The conduct of the officers involved was reprehensible. While neither officer provided a name and Mr. Hearn did not closely examine the proffered badge, law enforcement at our airport falls under your department’s jurisdiction. Mr. Hearn believes the badge he saw is the style used by your department. I cannot rule out the possibility that Mr. Hearn was questioned by an air marshal or some other federal officer rather than someone from BSO, but the way he was treated is inconsistent with the secondary screenings I have experienced. I, too, travel frequently for business through FLL.

I trust you will make inquiries to determine who was responsible, and take corrective action if this was done by members of your department. At a minimum, Mr. Hearn should receive an apology and the officers involved should be appropriately counseled. Mr. Hearn can be reached at our office at (954) 524-5552.

No member of our community, and for that matter none of our millions of visitors, should be singled out for selective and aggressive questioning at our airport due solely to their race. I believe it is nearly certain that this is what Mr. Hearn experienced. If he had been accompanied by you or by me, or by anyone who looks like either of us, the chances he would have been treated in this manner are nil.

I intend to bring this incident to the attention of the county commission, the Fort Lauderdale city commission (because our company is based there), and JetBlue. I recognize that this correspondence is subject to our state’s public records law. Not only do I welcome having it released, I also plan to publish it on my company’s blog. In that forum I will gladly include or add any response you or your department’s representatives might care to make.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. I look forward to your timely reply.

Sincerely,
Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®
President, Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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One Response to "Flying While Black"

  • Jordan S Zoot
    November 20, 2018 - 11:23 pm

    Larry,

    I know you for over thirty years and can attest to who you are…I would guess that I have known Shomari since he joined your firm. Shomari is everything you stated about him and more. I share your revulsion over the manner in which local law enforcement conducted themselves. May I suggest that the next step, without waiting another day should be the retention of counsel and the filing of a lawsuit in Federal court under 42 USC 1983. While I detest unnecessary litigation, it might be the only way to have a voice be heard. Further, it might be worth investigating to locate enough other individuals that have been subjected to similar treatment to secure class-action status and really slam the Broward County Sheriff.

    I commend you for standing up to this outrage…we both know why being silent isn’t acceptable. Please let Shomari know that you aren’t the only person that had that reaction.