photo by Flickr user formulanone
My mother is in excellent condition for a woman in her 90s, physically and mentally agile enough to navigate airports unassisted. I am happy to buy her a ticket to visit me in Fort Lauderdale when she feels like escaping the New Jersey winter weather.
Mom has no trouble meeting me at baggage claim on the way into Florida, or finding her way to her gate after I say goodbye to her at the security line on the way out. She knows the drill. Or at least she did, until the Broward County sheriff’s office decided to start randomly interrogating passengers about their travels and asking to search their carry-on bags as they pass through the terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
As I previously wrote, this happened in October to my firm’s managing vice president, Shomari Hearn, as he prepared to board a flight to Los Angeles. Shomari is African-American, and this was not the first time in his life he had been stopped by police while he was merely going about his business. It wasn’t the second or third time, either. Shomari believed he was being racially profiled, and the incident certainly struck me that way too when he told me about it. So I wrote to Sheriff Scott Israel to ask for an explanation. I considered doing so my duty, since Shomari was conducting my firm’s business when he was accosted by two plainclothes detectives.
I never received a response from Israel, or anyone in his department, but Shomari did. A couple of weeks after I sent my email, a pair of sergeants from the sheriff’s office – James Jenkins, of the Strategic Investigations Division, and William. S. “Steve” Drum, also of SID, as well as the department’s Narcotics Interdiction Task Force – came to our office to meet with Shomari. I was out of town at the time, so I did not attend; Shomari summarized the conversation for me later.
The sergeants wanted Shomari to provide a detailed description of the male officer who approached him, flashed a badge and asked to know why he was going to Los Angeles, what line of work Shomari was in and how much cash he was carrying. The sergeants also wanted Shomari’s estimate of how long the interaction had taken, whether it was five minutes or more like 10. This seemed odd, because it was clear that they had already looked into the incident and knew the identities of the personnel involved, as well as what had happened. They firmly denied that Shomari’s race had any role in the decision to approach him. The selection was random, they said.
If these stops are truly random, then I have as good a chance of being questioned this way as Shomari did, although I have never been “randomly” stopped in this manner in more than 60 years on this planet. My mom would likewise have an equally random chance of being approached. So I’ll have to talk to her about what to do if it ever happens.
What, you don’t believe my 92-year-old Caucasian mother has the same chance as Shomari of being questioned by plainclothes narcs?
Apparently even the Broward sheriff’s officers don’t expect us to believe that they spend their days randomly accosting businesspeople and visiting grandmas at the airport, so they also offered Shomari an additional reason for his being questioned: He showed up at the gate fairly close to departure time. This, supposedly, is characteristic of drug runners. It is also characteristic of anyone who must fight through South Florida traffic to get to the airport, and of frequent fliers like Shomari who have elite status that speeds them through security and lets them board early.
While insisting that race was not a factor in targeting Shomari, the two sergeants also wanted to know whether the detective who began firing questions had used any racial epithets. Apparently, proof of racial motivation would have involved the officer addressing Shomari as “boy,” or something even worse. The question makes me wonder if there is a 1960 calendar hanging on a wall someplace in the sheriff’s department.
Or maybe they expected Shomari to accept that the only color the sheriff’s Narcotics Interdiction Task Force cares about is green – the color of the currency the detectives apparently thought they might find, even in the absence of drugs, in his carry-on bag. According to a memo in the Broward sheriff’s files, the task force funds itself with a 20 percent cut of any assets that are forfeited to the Law Enforcement Trust Fund due to its activities. That memo made the point that besides looking for drugs, the task force actively seeks out “currency smuggling” on public conveyances such as airlines, as well as in private and commercial vehicles.
The author of that 2014 memo is the same Sgt. James Jenkins who met with Shomari at our office.
Actually, it is impossible to “smuggle” currency on the flight Shomari was taking from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, at least while California remains part of the United States. It is legal for travelers to carry any amount of currency within the country; currency must be declared (if it is more than $10,000) only before boarding an international flight. But officers are free to seize currency they believe might be derived from crime even if the person carrying it is never arrested or charged. The person whose money is seized must fight through the courts to get it back. Few succeed.
Shomari knew when he was approached by the plainclothes officer that he had the legal right to refuse to answer questions, or to permit his bag to be searched. With his flight due to board in a few minutes, he figured there was a good chance that the officers would cause him to miss his flight if he did. The two sergeants who followed up denied this would have happened, and I have no specific reason to doubt them. On the other hand, I have no reason to believe them, either. They mentioned that their task force had a K-9 unit on the airport premises. It isn’t beyond imagining that they might have asked the gate agent to delay Shomari’s boarding until they could bring out the contraband-sniffing dog.
I thought the interview left some questions unanswered. Who were the officers that questioned Shomari? Were any procedures either changed or reinforced to ensure travelers are not targeted by race or other improper factors? Will future interview targets be specifically advised that they have a right to decline to answer questions?
I emailed Sgt. Drum these questions. He responded with a terse note that, in effect, told me to do something that I have never had the bodily flexibility to do. He did indicate that questions from Shomari would be answered, so Shomari followed up with the same questions I had asked.
This is how we now know that it was Det. Roman Fayer who approached and interrogated Shomari, and Det. Natasha King who rummaged through his carry-on. We also know, per the reply Shomari received from Sgt. Jenkins, that “our detectives conduct consensual encounters in accordance with case laws that have been established by the courts.”
Jenkins observed that “Supreme Court rulings have determined that it is not a requirement of Law Enforcement officers that a citizen be notified of their right of refusal during a consensual encounter.” (In other words, if you don’t know that you have the right to say no, the Broward sheriffs won’t tell you.) “Please note that as discussed during our conversation, numerous citizens have stated that they did not wish to speak with our detectives during consensual encounters. Our detectives have respected those rights and will continue to do so.”
Although Jenkins and Drum seemed primarily concerned with covering the department’s legal backside, neither Shomari nor I were looking to get anybody sued or fired for his airport experience. A sheriff’s department whose officers cowered outside a school during a massacre has much bigger issues that need to take priority – starting with getting a new sheriff after the next election, or sooner.
If we want to prevent innocent travelers being targeted due to race or other element of their appearance, we need to handle things ourselves. My proposal is that if everyone refuses to grant these so-called consensual searches and interviews, maybe detectives seeking cash or glory will stop asking for them.
This is why I need to have a talk with my mom before her next trip to Fort Lauderdale. I will tell her that if an officer flashes a badge and starts asking questions she should simply say: “Thank you. I don’t require any law enforcement services right now. Am I free to go?”
A reasonable cop might say yes and wish her a good day. My guess is that if the officer happens to be Detectives Fayer or King, or one of their colleagues, the reaction instead will be to ask if they can proceed to search her bag. In which case, I will coach Mom to say – loudly enough for witnesses to hear – “I do not consent to have my person or property searched. Am I free to go?”
You should never run, never resist, never lie and, unless you have specific information you wish to share with the police, never say anything without a lawyer present. That’s my take on how to deal with cagey cops who are more interested in looking out for themselves than for the public. That sort of cop seems to be over-represented in the Broward sheriff’s department.