COVER STORY

LIFE IN A POLICE STATE

Residents of a black neighborhood in Atlantic Beach say it’s the cops, not hookers or drug dealers, who are destroying their quality of life

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Jacqueline McMullion takes a seat in a sprawling white wicker chair on the screened porch of her family’s Atlantic Beach home. At 45 years of age, she’s a sturdily built, small spitfire of a woman with close-cropped black hair and a debilitating heart condition. She can no longer work, but she’s got enough gumption for the jobs of matriarch of her large African-American family, neighborhood sentinel and somewhat reluctant spokesperson.

From her spot, McMullion waves as neighbors pass by on the narrow, two-laned Edgar Street in front of the house and keeps up with the goings-on in Black Pine — the neighborhood name for the Donner subdivision, four blocks of Atlantic Beach west of Mayport Road that was platted in 1921 as a subdivision for black families. Many families who live here go back a generation or two. It’s a neighborhood of bungalows, some brightly decorated with window boxes overflowing with colorful plastic flowers, others that look like their lots have just been carved from Florida palmetto scrub
and pines.

McMullion grew up in this house, one of 14 children. Her roots here are deep. She’s a veritable repository of neighborhood information — about this neighbor who just had a baby, about that one who is going to college in the fall. She also knows when a local hooker named Bonnie has likely turned a trick, because she sees her riding her bicycle down Edgar on her way to buy a hit from her dealer. The police never bother Bonnie, McMullion says, even though drugs and prostitution are two crimes the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office insists are major problems in Black Pine.

McMullion laughs Bonnie off. She’s not the one destroying Black Pine’s family feel and quality of life.

No, McMullion says, that would be the cops — specifically, the JSO officers who have since January descended upon Black Pine in force, policing the neighborhood aggressively and punitively. (Both the JSO and the Atlantic Beach Police Department service the neighborhood.) There are constant patrols, with squadrons of cop cars cruising up and down the neighborhood’s four streets. It’s a constant presence, McMullion says.

It feels like a police state.

Sometimes, four cruisers will roll through at the same time, dragnet style, bypassing each other as they sweep each street. Other times, two cruisers will park at either end of the three-block-long neighborhood and sit for hours. People leaving their homes are pulled over. Bicyclists are stopped. Pedestrians are questioned: Are they affiliated with the Black Pine Gang? Do they have any tattoos? Do they have drugs on them? A weapon? Could police search them just to make sure?

During the worst of the crackdown, before the neighbors began to protest, it seemed like the (all white) cops were stopping every single black person they saw on those streets, the residents say. McMullion stopped taking her grandkids to nearby Donner Park. She stopped her daily walks, stopped riding her bike to
the store.

She’s afraid of the police.

McMullion and other residents in Black Pine admit that the neighborhood has its share of difficulties. But they also describe it as a place where people still leave their doors unlocked at night, where there isn’t that much of a crime problem. And that, in their view, makes the JSO’s beefed-up presence strange and unsettling.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” she says.

 


It’s difficult to quantify how pervasive the JSO’s presence in Black Pine has been, because getting police records related to arrests and traffic stops in the neighborhood proved prohibitively expensive. The JSO, for instance, estimated that obtaining the 473 incident reports this year in the area encompassing and surrounding Black Pine would cost this magazine $2,124. For the 216 arrest reports in that area, $648. For the 10,338 traffic citations in JSO’s Zone 2, which includes Black Pine but also stretches out from Arlington to Mayport, $9,306. For computer-generated calls for service in the subsector of Zone 2 that includes Black Pine, $5,022.

Folio Weekly declined to pay what it believes to be exorbitant prices for public documents.

Since Black Pine falls within the city of Atlantic Beach, the city maintains a database of incidents in the community. Police Chief Mike Classey says his department has been collecting statistics specifically on the area he refers to as the “Mayport Corridor,” which includes Black Pine, because of an effort dating back to 2008 to address prostitution and drugs. The ABPD assigned a community police officer to the neighborhood to get to know its residents and to understand their problems. He says it’s worked well. There was a 25 percent decline in crime from 2008 to 2010, and it has stayed down.

In fact, the department has recorded just two incidents in Black Pine this year: an argument between a mother and daughter on March 3, and a shooting on May 4. That’s it.

And yet the JSO appears to have taken another, more aggressive tack, according to numerous interviews with the residents of Black Pine, one vastly out of proportion
to the neighborhood’s crime problem. The JSO’s dragnet has left residents constantly looking over their shoulders. Some of them see racial animus.

“It’s a racialized situation. It’s selective enforcement,” says Opio Sokoni, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who grew up in Black Pine. “The messages about the criminality and the danger of black men saturate the media and saturate the American consciousness. It is also the filter through which the police regard black men. They will find a pretext to stop somebody. There’s always a reason.”

This unease led to a testy neighborhood meeting on July 8, hosted by the SCLC at the Voo-Swar Restaurant & Lounge on Robert Street, where residents loudly voiced their concerns to JSO Assistant Chief John Lamb (who later likened it to a mob mentality) and several officers who patrol Zone 2. They heard complaint after complaint about police rudeness, forced searches and excessive stops. Residents said they felt harassed.

To assuage these concerns, on Aug. 25 Sheriff John Rutherford did a “community walk” through Black Pine, in which he said the JSO’s activities to combat drugs and prostitution there — including stopping people for petty offenses — were par for the course throughout Duval County.

“What I’ve been hearing more from this community is that they want us here, they need us out here,” Rutherford told Folio Weekly after that walk. “Things are better. They want these officers out here. But let me say that every officer here knows that I expect them to be professional. Nobody’s rights are going to be violated.”

The Black Pine residents Folio Weekly interviewed tell quite a different story.

 


Take, for instance, Antonio Ellis, 30, who on Jan. 20 — after the JSO dispatched three officers in response to a fight he was having with his girlfriend — asked the cops for their badge numbers, because he believed they were being rude.

Two of them complied. The third, Officer J.S. Thomas, took offense, Ellis says. After the other two walked off, Ellis says, Thomas snarled at him, “Oh, you want to be a smart ass? Fuck that. You want to be a smart ass, you’re going to jail.”

Ellis says that Thomas slammed his head into the police cruiser and then grabbed his hands to handcuff him. Ellis cried out in pain and then heard a cracking sound. He kept quiet. “He’s being this nasty to me, I wondered what other charge he might put on me if I tell him he did something wrong,” Ellis says.

Thomas arrested Ellis for disorderly intoxication. In his incident report, he said he smelled alcohol on Ellis’ breath. Ellis says he asked for a Breathalyzer test, but Thomas refused. As soon as they arrived at the jail, Ellis says he told the jailers that Thomas had hurt his hand. They told Thomas to drive him to Shands. Ellis says he became terrified when he realized that Thomas wasn’t driving toward the hospital.

“I was panicked,” Ellis says.

So, too, was Thomas, apparently. Ellis says the officer drove him around and apologized profusely before taking him to the hospital, where he was treated for a broken thumb. The doctors put a cast on his hand that reached to his elbow.

On Jan. 23, Ellis filed an internal affairs complaint against Thomas for excessive force. When Folio Weekly interviewed Ellis in August, he said that the investigation was ongoing. In fact, it has been closed since March 17. Although Ellis says he tried to contact investigators and never heard back, the internal affairs report says JSO investigators tried to contact him four times and left messages on his phone three times. Because of Ellis’ unwillingness to participate, JSO exonerated Thomas.

Ellis, meanwhile, says he’s still afraid of retaliation. “I’m scared. I’m in fear. I’m in fear for my life. Right now, to this day,” he says.

 


Or take Desi Mitchell.

Mitchell, 48, admits he’s not exactly a poster boy for police harassment claims. In 2003, the JSO arrested him for trafficking in cocaine and purchasing a controlled substance with the intent to sell. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. But that was 11 years ago, the ex-Marine and Desert Storm vet points out. Today he is an electrician, a father of four, has had his voting rights restored, and the military is paying for him to attend college for an associate of science degree in engineering technology with an ultimate goal of earning a bachelor’s in logistics.

Yet when JSO Officer Michael Gibson stopped him and his friend Keegan Kelly as they drove back to Mitchell’s house from the Kangaroo Express convenience store in the early morning hours of June 30, it was Mitchell’s decade-old record that most interested him. Gibson first told the men he wanted to check the window tint on the Chevy Impala that Kelly had just bought. Then he wanted to know if Mitchell had been drinking (he had, but he was the passenger.)

After Gibson ran Mitchell’s driver’s license, he ordered him out of the car, took him to the back of the Impala, handcuffed him and searched his pockets. (Under Florida’s stop-and-frisk law, police have the right to temporarily detain a person if they believe that person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. If the officer believes the person might be armed, he or she has the right to search the suspect for a weapon.)

Gibson rattled off a couple of names and asked Mitchell if he knew them. Mitchell told Gibson he’d been out of the drug game for 11 years. Gibson searched him anyway, and found a small amount of marijuana in one of his pockets. Gibson charged Mitchell with misdemeanor possession.

Mitchell pleaded no contest, and Judge Dawn Hudson withheld adjudication.

To many Americans — even those who themselves occasionally indulge — the fact that Mitchell had pot on him is proof enough that he was a suspicious character who deserved to be search. But Mitchell sees this as an example of an overzealous cop using the pretext of tinted windows and a decade-old conviction to go on a fishing expedition.

On Aug. 15, Mitchell filed a complaint against Gibson, alleging that Gibson violated his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. He says he’s heard the stories of other black men stopped in Black Pine and searched without cause, and he’s not taking it lying down. A group of men in the neighborhood and across Mayport Road in Jordan Park are joining forces to help others who believe their rights have been violated to file complaints.

“I’m not going to let it go,” Mitchell says. “I’m a disabled vet. I put my life on the line to defend the constitution of the United States, and I will be damned if I allow someone to violate and trample over the rights that I put my life on the line to defend. That is not going to happen.”

 


Or take Taron Johnson.

On July 26, he got dressed up in funeral clothes: black dress shirt, black slacks, black dress shoes, black tie. Then he drove his burgundy Chevy Impala to Atlantic Beach to pick up his cousin. It was a sad day. Both Taron and his cousin thought of 19-year-old Harold Breion Long as family. They’d all grown up together in Black Pine, playing kickball, basketball, video games, and pee-wee and high school football together.

Long was standing near Cypress Landing Drive near Mayport on July 14 when someone drove past and shot him dead. News reports mentioned that Long had just been released from prison two weeks earlier; he’d been locked up for cocaine possession. Whatever he did wrong, Johnson says, Long’s crimes weren’t violent. He was well-liked. At a neighborhood memorial in Donner Park, more than 100 people showed up.

The funeral was at noon. But before they could mourn their friend, they had a run-in with the JSO.

Johnson was driving on Hidden Cove Circle on their way to the Titus Harvest Dome Spectrum Church, across the Intracoastal Waterway, when a JSO officer did a U-turn and flashed his lights. Johnson pulled over. When the officer came to the car, he said he thought the men weren’t wearing seatbelts; they were. He asked for their identification. Johnson says he wasn’t worried because neither he nor his cousin has ever been in trouble. Johnson, 22, is studying physical therapy at FAMU and planning to go to graduate school. His cousin, who did not want to be named, works at and attends Florida State College at Jacksonville.

But then another cop pulled up, and things got weird. The officers asked the men if they were gang members, if they had drugs or weapons in the car. They asked to search the car. They asked the men if they had tattoos. Johnson said an officer asked him to unbutton his shirt so that he could see if he had any tattoos on his chest. Then he let them go.

“I’m kind of puzzled what it was about me, what impression did I give off that made you assume I’m a gang member?”

He could only conclude that it was his race.

Throughout the ordeal, Johnson says, he remained jovial and polite. He didn’t want to give the cops a reason to do anything. But he’s not happy about what happened.

“They aren’t protecting and serving us at all,” he says. “They are intimidating and stereotyping everyone in the neighborhood.”

 


McMullion says she saw the JSO’s alleged heavy-handed tactics up close in mid-August, when family members from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina descended on her house after her grandmother died. The JSO took notice. Officers drove by her house, slowing down as they passed. They parked at the corner of the street and waited, watching. When her relatives left the house, several were pulled over before they turned onto Mayport Road. One’s window tint was dark. Police suspected another wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. The cops ran their licenses, questioned them, made them feel like criminals.

“We catch hell in this neighborhood,” says Loeva Davis-Johnson, McMullion’s
youngest sister.

“We’re just saying we got a bunch of good citizens over here,” says Black Pine resident Emanual Brown. “When you pull them over and talk shit to them, you are being disrespectful to the people who are actually paying your bills. These are homeowners. These are taxpayers.”

The JSO patrols don’t affect just the individuals in Black Pine, Brown says. They also hurt the area’s black-owned businesses, like Lacy McMullion’s Touch of Class auto detailing shop on Mayport Road and the Voo-Swar Restaurant.

“You pull everybody over who leaves this car wash or leaves the club over here, what do you think their customers are going to do next time they want a sandwich or want to get their car washed?” Brown asks. “They won’t come here.”

Brown’s father and grandfather worked for the city of Atlantic Beach, and he works for the city himself. He heard so many complaints about policing in his neighborhood that he contacted the SCLC, which set up the July 8 community meeting.

The residents at that meeting specifically complained about two officers who frequently patrolled their part of Zone 2: Gibson and Lt. Steve Mullen. After the meeting, Lamb told Action News that he was surprised by the neighborhood’s furor because his department had received few complaints about police misconduct, and they had been dismissed as either unfounded or not sustained. Lamb said he planned to examine the officers’ arrest records and the crime rates in the area to determine if his officers’ policing methods were successful.

(Later, during Sheriff Rutherford’s community walk in August, Lamb said he’d reviewed Gibson’s arrest numbers. Of the 159 arrests that Gibson made from January 2013 to July 2014, 38 percent were for drug offenses and 26 percent were for crimes that involved violence. “I don’t want to knock anybody for that,” he said. His conclusion? “He’s one of our better officers.”)

The patrols eased up some after the July 8 meeting, Brown says. But after the murder of Harold Long in late July, the police returned in force (though Long wasn’t killed in Black Pine, but in a nearby neighborhood). It has been only recently, after a third meeting of Sokoni, Brown and Lamb, that the patrols have eased up again. 

For now.

 


On his Aug. 25 community walk, an effort to quell the tension between the cops and Black Pine residents, Sheriff Rutherford said his men were there to combat the twin evils of drugs and prostitution. Brown and others say they’ve been told by police that the cops are battling an outfit that calls itself the Black Pine Gang, which may or may not, in fact, exist. McMullion, who seems to know everything about everything in this neighborhood, says she’s never heard of it. Another older resident scoffed at the idea: “If these guys have a gang, it’s the most disorganized gang there ever was. They couldn’t even get together and agree to go up to the store to buy a soda.”

Rutherford arrived with an entourage of 18 or more uniformed officers — including Gibson and Mullen, about whom residents have most complained — with more on bicycles and a group of people trailing him. He strode up and down the streets, shaking hands, talking to residents, posing for pictures. He told them that his officers were there to help the law-abiding residents of the neighborhood keep crime at bay. Most everybody he talked to seemed a little star-struck.

At the Voo-Swar, an uncomfortable Brown suggested to Rutherford that he should send some experienced officers to the neighborhood, officers who had a sense of the community. He said some of the officers out there now seem mostly interested in padding their arrest stats. As he spoke, Gibson stood nearby, listening and commenting to another officer — prompting Brown to assure him that it was nothing personal.

When Rutherford mentioned to one woman that some people in the neighborhood had complained about the police, she suggested that “Maybe it’s the ones making trouble who are complaining.”

Rutherford liked that idea. “Thank you!” he exclaimed.

Later, Rutherford said that the worst complaint he’d heard was that his officers didn’t wave at children, which he attributed to them being harried from running call to call because of budget cuts.

Rutherford told Folio Weekly that he wished more residents with a positive impression of the JSO had attended the Voo-Swar meeting back in July, and that he came away from his walk believing that most of the community supports what the JSO is doing.

But with his entourage of armed officers and his glad-handing, the walk really wasn’t the place for a serious discussion of police tactics. Several residents concluded afterward that Rutherford really didn’t want to understand their issues.

McMullion says Rutherford cut her off when she tried to talk to him. “That was a stage show. That’s what that was,” she says.

Since she spoke out at the July 8 meeting, McMullion says, she’s lived in fear that the JSO will target her and her large family. She stays inside most of the time.

“I’m terrified,” she says.

2 comments on this story | Add your comment
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ludusmma

This is the most ridicules thing I have ever seen! You have criminals talking about Police officers harassing them when they are in fact guilty of the crime they are being "harassed". Every one in this post wants to complain about being harassed, well one day you might need one of these officers and even though you manipulate the system to try to stay out of jail they will still be there for you when you need help. Wednesday, September 10, 2014|Report this

concernedcitizen

We as Americans had better wake up and take an active interest in what is going on in this country. Many people black and white are afraid of various law enforcement agencies. Open your minds and hearts and do some critical thinking on this subject. There are stories here locally and nationwide that raise the question as to how safe we may or may not be when law enforcement corruption involves forfeiture, domestic violence and cover-ups involving the blue brothers. Wishing it away or denying its existence does not make it so. Thursday, September 25, 2014|Report this