Militarized Police in Palm Beach, Violations of Civil Rights and Random Shakedow
Street sweepers bust gangs
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007
They call the unit Gangbusters, a name right out of the movies.
But these aren’t the natty "Untouchables" of the 1920s and Kevin Costner fame.
They don’t wear business suits. They dress in basic black, wrapped in bulletproof vests, with semiautomatic handguns strapped to their thighs. They aren’t detectives; they are commandos.
Think Stallone, not Costner.
They race through high-crime neighborhoods of the county, often in unmarked vehicles, stopping car after car for the smallest infractions, in a manic fashion that sometimes resembles a pinball game.
The strategy: Stop anyone and everyone for anything illegal — broken tail light, overly tinted windows, running a stop sign — and then see what you find.
Drugs. Guns. Passengers with outstanding warrants for serious crimes. Occasionally they grab gang members. But anyone with a sufficiently serious offense gets busted, gang-affiliated or not. Beginning in January, the unit had made 1,879 arrests through last weekend.
"Everybody has to drive somewhere," says Lt. Robert Allen, a Gangbusters commander. "We’ve arrested people for everything from outstanding traffic violations to murder."
Says Sgt. Mark Glogowski, leader of one Gangbusters squad: "We’re not arresting gang members every night. But we’re all over the place putting on the blue lights. They know that if they go out, they can get arrested, so they don’t go out to shoot somebody. That’s the idea."
Gangbusters officers insist that their strategy is working. There have been no gang-related homicides in the county during the past four months, they say. During the previous 15 months, there had been at least 10 homicides and more than 100 gang-involved shooting incidents.
Slayings spark call for proactive unit
The hyperactive unit hit the streets Jan. 11. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office formed it in response to escalating violence, especially gang-related gunplay.
Ten days before, on New Year’s Day, Tavares Carter, 8 months old, was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in Riviera Beach. And one week before that, gang member Berno Charlemond, 24, was shot to death on Christmas Eve in the teeming Boynton Beach Mall, another crime that netted national attention.
The county already fielded a Violent Crimes Task Force, but it was decided another layer of law enforcement was needed.
"The task force had become a more reactive unit, answering calls, because of the rising amount of crimes," Allen says. "We felt the need to create a more proactive unit."
Of those arrested since January, about 10 percent — about 200 — are verified gang members, the sheriff’s office says. At least seven were murder suspects, "most of them for gang-related stuff," sheriff’s spokesman Paul Miller says. The unit says it will not release the identities of alleged gang members because cases are still being made against them, including possible racketeering charges.
Gangbusters also has seized illegal weapons, including semiautomatic rifles such as AK-47s, and large amounts of illegal narcotics, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana and Ecstasy.
Deputies find chases common
On two recent evenings, journalists accompanied Gangbusters deputies on their careening rounds, one in Riviera Beach and one in Belle Glade.
Deputies Kevin Drummond, 31, and Sean McMichael, 32, have been with Gangbusters since Day 1. They have just arrived in Riviera Beach, about 6 p.m. on a Saturday, when they see a black late-model Chevrolet Monte Carlo fail to come to a complete stop at an intersection.
That’s all they need. They crank up the siren, hit the blue lights and pull up behind, but the driver decides to make a run for it.
He guns the Monte Carlo down a quiet residential street, made extra narrow by the cars parked on each side. Drummond stomps on the gas of his aging Jeep Cherokee. He usually drives a faster car, but he has given another team the faster wheels because he’s carrying guests.
McMichael squawks into a microphone pinned to his shoulder, advising other units of location and the direction of the chase so they can close in.
Two civilian cars are approaching in the opposite direction, and the weaving Monte Carlo barely makes it by without colliding with them. Residents are on the sidewalk and very vulnerable.
A chase in that situation might be dangerous and the Monte Carlo is too fast for Drummond anyway, so after one block he backs off. The shift is minutes old, and they already have lost a "runner."
"Who knows what he had in the car — drugs, a gun," Drummond says with a shrug. "Or maybe he had an outstanding warrant. This happens all the time."
Glogowski says his officers can use "spike strips," bands studded with sharp metal spikes, laid on the road to blow out the tires of fleeing vehicles.
"But I wouldn’t authorize spike stripping at 5 or 6 p.m. Too many cars on the street and the chance the target car will go out of control and hit someone else. Two a.m. is a different story. Then, the game is on."
Drummond and McMichael will be involved in one more chase late that night, which will end somewhat more successfully. In between, they will stop many cars in different parts of the city.
High-crime minority areas targeted
The areas where the Gangbusters unit works are largely minority areas with high crime rates. The officers say they have patrolled mostly in Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Belle Glade and some unincorporated areas.
"Local agencies call with requests," Allen says. "They say they have an area where known gang members hang out. Or they tell us drugs are being sold, or large festivities, a party is going that might attract trouble. Possibly they are expecting a retaliation because of an earlier incident."
Some municipal police have served with Gangbusters, but most members are sheriff’s deputies.
"At other times, we target gang members who have outstanding warrants," Allen says. "We target a ZIP code where we know there are a number of them. Or homicide will send us names of people they are looking for."
Allen says it doesn’t bother him that 90 percent of people arrested aren’t gang members.
"A lot of them are peripheral people, peripheral to the gangs," he says. "Maybe they aren’t selling drugs, but they are buying drugs from the gangs."
"Or they’ve stolen a gun and are looking to sell it to a gang. They sell a $400 handgun for $20 worth of crack. Whatever. They shouldn’t be there. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong purpose."
Crime database aids searches
The deputies’ usual ploy is to pull up behind a car driving down the street or stopped at a light. Drummond calls out the tag number, and McMichael punches it into the laptop computer balanced on his legs.
The computer connects to the National Crime Information Center and tells McMichael within about 10 seconds whether the car has been stolen and whether the registered owner is wanted for a crime.
Moments later, the computer screen percolates with the full criminal record of the owner. Before the light has changed, the Gangbusters deputies know whether to pull the car over and whom they might be dealing with.
"The technology these days is just amazing," McMichael says.
Other times, the deputies spot an infraction. None is too small. On the nights the journalists ride with them, many people are stopped because their car windows are tinted too darkly.
In the case of Danny White, 37, of Riviera Beach, the temporary license tag above his rear bumper hangs at an angle. Again, that is enough to pull him over and talk to him.
McMichael puts White’s name into the computer and finds he is driving with a suspended license. White is asked to step from the car, and McMichael searches the vehicle, according to procedures the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office taught Gangbusters officers.
Traffic stop leads to drug bust
Between the front seat and the driver’s door, McMichael finds an ashtray holding several marijuana roaches and a small envelope containing white powder residue.
Drummond pops the back hatch of the Cherokee and produces a kit to test suspicious substances. Drummond adds a sample of the powder to a vial filled with clear liquid and holds it up.
"If it turns blue, it’s cocaine," he says.
Moments later, the clear emulsion does exactly that.
In the end, White is heading to jail, charged with felony drug possession.
It is 7:30 p.m., and the transport van that picks up White to take him to jail already carries six other men picked up in the past 90 minutes, some of them arrested by other Gangbusters officers.
"Last night we had 18, and there were 12 today during the day shift," says Harvey McClendon, the van driver. "It’s busy."
As they drive, Drummond and McMichael receive reports over the sheriff’s office radio about crimes committed nearby: a car reported stolen, shots fired on 25th Court, a man says he was the victim of a robbery. Other officers, not with Gangbusters, respond to those.
Deputy’s killing shows danger
Drummond and McMichael continue to stop cars, one after another.
"Not everybody can do this," Glogowski says. "Twenty traffic stops per night is exhausting. It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do. Sometimes, the hair goes up on the back of your neck."
Especially lately. Two nights before, Broward County sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Reyka was shot to death as he approached a suspicious car parked behind a Walgreens in Pompano Beach.
Gangbusters deputies have been shot at twice by suspects they were pursuing, Lt. Allen says. None was injured.
The Gangbusters cops write few traffic citations, even though that is often the original reason for the stops. They let most people go.
"They assume you’re going to write them a ticket," says Gangbusters deputy Ray Ruby, who is also on the streets of Riviera Beach. "But you just give them a warning. It’s good public relations."
Ruby was also on duty two nights before in Belle Glade, where Gangbusters not only stopped cars but also questioned young men hanging out on the street at night, driven from their homes by the intense heat. In some cases, the deputies patted them down, searching for drugs.
Ruby and other deputies sometimes get into long exchanges, during which locals complain about all the law enforcement attention.
"There’s just too much harassment," says Anthony Burden, 27, who says he’s a "working man," a forklift operator for a local agricultural company.
Ruby listens patiently. "Sometimes I let them ramble, let them get it off their chests," he says.
During the long two nights, Gangbusters deputies do not encounter any confirmed gang members on the street.
They travel through neighborhoods allegedly dominated by local gangs — Buck Wild, Monroe Heights Posse, the Firehouse Gang — but no members are in evidence.
The deputies say that, when they started patrols in January, gang members would approach them to show off their gang tattoos.
"They would lift their shirts and show you the tattoos on their backs," McMichael says.
But many have gotten busted, and now few admit to being gang members.
"They ain’t so proud of it anymore," McMichael says.
"Gang members have pulled their heads in like turtles," says Miller, the sheriff’s spokesman.
Allen says the disappearance of gang members from the streets is tactical.
"They adjust to our trends," he says. "These aren’t stupid people. They know how to get the job done."
He means the job of crime.
McMichael concurs. When Gangbusters focused on Riviera Beach streets earlier in the year, gang members disappeared, he says.
"Then we left here and then they started to come out again," he says. "When we first came back, the streets were full of them again."
‘It’s going to take more than this’
At 11:15 p.m., Drummond and McMichael see a blue Ford Taurus SE fail to stop completely at a stop sign on North Dixie Highway. They speed up behind it and flip on the blue lights. The driver responds by hitting the gas. The chase is on.
The driver of the Taurus feigns a left turn and swings back onto the road with Drummond trying to stick to him. At the corner of 31st Street, the escaping driver again dodges into the left turn lane. Drummond speeds up right next to him.
The driver suddenly slams the Taurus into reverse, swivels the car sharply and starts the wrong way down North Dixie Highway, heading toward oncoming traffic.
Suddenly, the Taurus skids to a halt and two men jump out. One runs straight down the adjacent railroad tracks. The other crosses the tracks and disappears into underbrush.
McMichael chases the second man, takes a tumble on the far side of the tracks, picks himself up and keeps going.
Eventually he returns, bleeding from a scrape on his arm where he fell. He’s empty-handed. The two have gotten away. The car is rented and not worth trying to trace, the deputies decide.
Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters, traveling that night with local police, arrives at the scene. Asked about Gangbusters, he says the effort has reduced the crime rate.
"But in the end, it’s going to take more than this," he says. "It’s going to take everybody — churches, schools. Everybody."
Drummond and McMichael write up a report on the chase. Then they crank up the Cherokee and keep driving toward midnight.