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Miami Beach Police face charges of anti-gay harassment

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Wednesday Feb 17, 2010
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The Miami Beach Police Department has come under fire from local activists who contend a pending lawsuit’s claim a gay man was harassed and wrongfully arrested by two police officers prove homophobia within the force.

The complaint, brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida earlier this month on behalf of former Miami resident Harold Strickland, alleges the MBPD arrested Strickland on false charges after he witnessed and reported two officers brutally attacking another man in Flamingo Park last March. After he had seen two uniformed men punching and kicking a handcuffed man’s head "as if ... kicking a football," the officers came after Strickland, hurling anti-gay slurs at him and eventually arresting him in on a loitering-or-prowling charge.

The charges against both Strickland and the man being attacked were eventually dropped, owing to major discrepancies between the officers’ testimonies and the information Strickland described to the 911 dispatcher as he witnessed the incident. The ACLU would like to see criminal charges levied against the officers.

Robert Rosenwald, director of the ACLU of Florida’s LGBT Advocacy Project, said the Strickland case is only the latest example of a long-standing problem in Miami Beach. He said his office routinely receives complaints of police officers harassing, intimidating and chasing gay men out of the area with claims "this is not the gay area anymore."

"This is a problem that’s been going on for years and we’ve been looking for a case to challenge it for a long time," Rosenwald told EDGE. "Officers have been making things up, trumping up charges and beating them. I think Miami Beach needs to face the fact that it is not as gay-friendly as it needs to be."

When news of the pending lawsuit broke, the city’s gay activists considered organizing a march to highlight the incident. In response, the city’s police department, while claiming it was previously unaware of the incident, put officers Frankly Forte and Elliot Hazzi on desk duty pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Miami Beach Police Chief Carlos Noriega and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez attended a previously planned meeting with a committee of gay business owners the following week. It addressed the incident as part of a larger conversation on building bridges between the city’s gay residents and the MBPD in light of previous complaints of increased violence in the area.

Herb Sosa, a member of that committee and president of the Unity Coalition, described the police department as both accommodating and understanding.

"The police seemed surprised at the perception of a lack of communication happening between the LGBT community and the police department," Sosa said. "But I think a lot of positive came from the meeting. I have nothing but praise for the police."

In the meeting, the MBPD discussed plans to streamline hate crime reporting operations into an electronic system that would more easily allow victims to identify themselves. They also announced two promotions for openly gay officers who will play a role as liaisons to gay and lesbian residents.

"From the outside, it seemed like a crisis, but that wasn’t the case," Sosa added, noting he had had numerous positive interactions with the police in his more than 20 years living in the Miami Beach area.

Rosenwald maintains, however, the Strickland incident was far from an exception to the city’s rule and feels it is his right and civil duty to report police misconduct. Since Strickland’s story is backed by the 911 recording, he maintains this incident represents an ideal case for the ACLU to challenge the city on the issue of homophobia.

"This is not an isolated incident, but this is a systemic problem of policy that the police department needs to deal with," Rosenwald said. "We think the negative publicity in this case has made them more serious and more willing to do the right thing, so I’ll take them at their word and we’ll have to wait and see."

The city has six months to respond.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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