At the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Broward County, Fla. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
I know my friend and colleague Shomari Hearn is a man of prodigious talent and many accomplishments, but even I was stunned that he managed to be randomly stopped and not racially profiled twice, in the same place, by the very same officer.
Then again, I am not African American, and Shomari is. I can’t get myself randomly stopped and questioned by law enforcement even once as I go about my daily business. Shomari, who is our firm’s managing vice president, is turning it into an annual event, like Halloween. I doubt many African American readers will be as amazed as I am by his ability to attract a plainclothes detective’s attention while doing absolutely nothing suspicious.
As I previously reported in this blog, Shomari was aggressively approached and questioned at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida airport in October 2018 by a badge-flashing officer we later learned was Det. Roman Fayer of the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Shomari had noticed Fayer earlier, near the security checkpoint, because Fayer was wearing a sweatshirt with the name of the high school that Shomari’s daughter attends. Later, when Fayer was staring at him in the boarding area, Shomari assumed they might have crossed paths on campus.
Shomari was about to board his JetBlue flight to Los Angeles for business meetings when Fayer approached and demanded to know who he was, where he was going and why he was going there. He also demanded that Shomari permit a partner, Det. Natasha King, to rummage through his carry-on bag.
Shomari knew he could have declined these honors – nobody else in the boarding area was offered such personal attention – but he calculated that lack of cooperation would encourage the officers to find some reason to make him miss his flight, which was the last of the day.
Shomari felt he was racially profiled. Since he lived in New York City, where that was practically a daily routine in the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk era, he knows much more about it than I do. I saw no reason to disagree with him. But there was, in fact, no profiling; we know this because the Broward Sheriff’s Office told us so.
This is the same sheriff’s office whose officers stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when 14 students and three adults were killed, and another 17 people were wounded, in the Valentine’s Day attack eight months before Shomari met Fayer and King. It is the same department that allowed chaos to reign for many hours at Fort Lauderdale’s airport in the wake of a January 2017 mass shooting that killed five people, even though the shooter was captured less than two minutes after the first shots were fired.
This is the department that, last October, was still being run by Sheriff Scott Israel. Israel was suspended from his post for these failures by newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis in January; his removal was made permanent last month by the Florida Senate. Israel, evidently unchastened, recently filed to run for sheriff in 2020.
In response to Shomari’s complaint, two sergeants came to our office to probe his story – although it was obvious they already had the relevant details – and insist that the officers at the airport did not engage in racial profiling. In fact, they insisted the detectives had done nothing wrong except that Fayer stood in front of Shomari’s face, impeding Shomari’s ability to walk away if he chose.
After I wrote about the incident and the follow-up in this blog, I received a brief letter from Lt. Barry Lindquist, executive officer of the department’s internal affairs division. Lindquist likewise assured me that after review, “no misconduct was identified.” You can click here to read his letter in full.
Fast forward to Oct. 21, 2019. Shomari was back at the same airport, waiting to board another JetBlue flight to Los Angeles, when he was again approached by Det. Fayer – this time from the side, following correct procedure. Fayer demanded to see Shomari’s boarding pass and ID. He did not recognize Shomari or appear to remember the incident, until Shomari described the sweatshirt he had worn last year and reminded him of the complaint he subsequently filed. Remarkably, Fayer tried to continue questioning Shomari, until Shomari confirmed that he was free to go and ended the conversation. The undercover officer’s parting words were “Have a nice day.”
How many times do I have to write this story? More importantly, how many times must Shomari and other innocent travelers at our hometown airport have to live it?
There are a few things that are different this year. With Israel gone, our new Broward County sheriff is Gregory Tony, who is himself African American. Like a lot of Broward County residents, I think Tony has made a decent start at cleaning up the mess of a department that Israel left, or at least I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I will forward this column to his office. If he wants to see for himself, I suggest he dress in casual clothes, wear a ball cap, carry a duffel bag and book a flight to LA. There’s a good chance he will randomly encounter Det. Fayer.
The Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation unanimously voted to strip the Broward Sheriff’s Office of its accreditation this summer, mainly for the failings evident at the mass shootings in 2017 and 2018. The department is seeking to get it back. I plan to send our notes about Shomari’s experiences and the department’s responses to the commission for its consideration when that reaccreditation request is reviewed.
And finally, I am going to suggest right here that the department do something about the plainclothes detective who is running amok at our airport – namely, get him out of there and off the street before someone innocent gets hurt by his evident inability to distinguish a successful, hardworking business traveler from a criminal, and his apparent reliance on skin pigment instead.
I am sure there are many law enforcement duties that Det. Fayer is qualified to perform, despite his limitations. Walking and feeding the police dogs might be one. Or taking the cruisers to and from the car wash. Perhaps handing out coloring books to school children would be OK. This cop should not be in plainclothes, carrying a gun and a badge, and interacting with the citizenry under his own authority. The only time he should have access to an airport concourse is when he is carrying his own boarding pass.
I don’t know what it’s like to go through life as an African American man, but I know statistics, probabilities and the definition of “random.” I also have a brother who is a retired police sergeant, and I can tell the difference between cops who are committed to service and those who are merely self-serving. Former Sheriff Israel left too many of the latter behind at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Shomari’s travel travails have introduced us to several, and there is one in particular that I’d like to get out of the airport.