By Richard Prince, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
ORLANDO - Jeff Weiner's stories in the Orlando Sentinel, starting last month, would seem natural candidates for the wry "(fill in the blank) while black" tales that sprouted after "driving while black" took hold 20 years ago, inspired by racial profiling of African American motorists.
"As many as 14 armed Orange County deputies, including narcotics agents, stormed Strictly Skillz barbershop during business hourson a Saturday in August, handcuffing barbers in front of customers during a busy back-to-school weekend," Weiner wrote on Nov. 7.
"It was just one of a series of unprecedented raid-style inspections the Orange County Sheriff's Office recently conducted with a state regulating agency, targeting several predominantly black- and Hispanic-owned barbershops in the Pine Hills area.
"In 'sweeps' on Aug. 21 and Sept. 17 targeting at least nine shops, deputies arrested 37 people — the majority charged with 'barbering without a license,' a misdemeanor that state records show only three other people have been jailed [for] in Florida in the past 10 years.
"The operations were conducted without warrants, under the authority of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspectors, who can enter salons at will. Deputies said they found evidence of illegal activity, including guns, drugs and gambling. However, records show that during the two sweeps, and a smaller one in October, just three people were charged with anything other than a licensing violation."
The uproar was immediate, and by last week, Weiner was reporting:
"Three members of a state licensing agency — including regional and statewide program administrators — have been fired after an internal review of a series of unorthodox Orange County barbershop inspections with sheriff's deputies.
". . . Just days after an Orlando Sentinel report on the operations, described by barbers and customers as SWAT-style raids, the state licensing agency announced it was suspending all joint operations with law enforcement pending its internal review.
"The Sheriff's Office also is investigating its role in the operations, which included major sweeps Aug. 21 and Sept. 17 and a smaller operation Oct. 8."
In an e-mail exchange, Weiner, a breaking news/crime reporter, explained how he came upon the story and how he thinks race played into it.
"In a way, I actually discovered this story by being beaten to it," he began. "I was watching the local nightly news (as I typically do each night to see if we missed anything breaking during the day) on Aug. 21, the day of the first set of sweep operations. One of the local news stations . . . had a camera crew at one of the operations, and captured on camera deputies in ski masks loading barbers into a police van. The report said the barbers were facing an unlicensed barbering charge.
"I found all of this odd, particularly because I had never heard of anyone being arrested for cutting hair without a license. So I called a Sheriff's spokesman, who said the operations were targeting not drugs, but unlicensed barbers, and were a joint effort with a state licensing agency to crack down on unlicensed activity. The TV station gave the story a few minutes that night, and then dropped it. I found it strange enough to begin investigating. It took more than two months to get the records and interviews necessary to write the Nov. 7 article, and I have been covering the story ever since.
"As for the racial aspect, it is difficult to say. A lot of people, including many of the barbers themselves, have insisted that the nine or so shops that were specifically targeted in the operations were chosen because, as one of their attorneys put it, 'The stereotype is that young black men sell drugs, and where will you find young black men? You will find them in a barber shop.' The barbers targeted believe the Sheriff's Office used the authority of the state licensing agency to search area shops without needing warrants.
"The Sheriff's Office and the state agency have said that the shops chosen had a history of either uncooperative or even threatening behavior toward licensing inspectors (though the evidence for the latter is dubious at best). They said they visited other shops in the area, including white-owned establishments, with a lesser force 'to avoid any inference that anyone was being 'targeted' by the detail,' in the words of Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Angelo Nieves. They have also questioned the descriptions of barbers and customers that the operations were overly theatrical, or were carried out like raids.
"I can't tell you conclusively that race was involved. What I can say is this: The shops targeted in the two sweeps were all either black- or Hispanic-owned and operated. Of the 39 people arrested, 38 were either Hispanic or black. The checks at other area establishments involved a deputy or two, while the ones at the targeted shops involved in some cases more than a dozen, including narcotics agents. A review by the licensing agency involved revealed details of property damage, the use of canine units during inspections and, in some cases, the failure of inspectors to document entire operations. The review also determined that a licensing inspector forced his way into locked areas of barbershops during the operations, despite having no authority to do so, using tools provided by deputies. The results of that review led to three people at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation being fired, including regional and statewide program administrators."
But what about the race of the authorities?
"The Sheriff's Office says the operations stemmed from a chance encounter," Weiner continued. "Sheriff's Cpl. Keith Vidler saw a DBPR licensing inspector standing near her car. He approached her, and she complained that she'd been having difficulties with some area shops. He told his supervisor, Lt.Ron Chapman, and the two agencies got together to plan the operations." Vidler and Chapman are white.
"However, one of the oddities revealed in the DBPR report was that, though they said they realized early on that the show of force and the choice of targets (several minority owned shops in a notoriously high-crime area) could be controversial, neither the sheriff nor the head of the DBPR were told about the joint operations." Sheriff Jerry Demings is black. "In fact, DBPR Secretary Charlie Liemlater told the Florida Small Business Regulatory Advisory Council that he learned of the joint effort when he read my first article."
The next exchange of e-mails mentioned barbers packing heat.
"The difficulties described by licensing inspectors in area shops ranged from general complaints of uncooperative behavior to feelings that barbers were behaving menacingly towards them," Weiner said.
"For example, since inspectors are not law enforcement officers and have no arrest authority, they said some unlicensed barbers had a habit of walking out of shops when they saw an inspector coming. It was mostly that type of behavior, plus general rudeness and a sense that inspectors were unwelcome in the shops.
"However, there were times when inspectors said they felt genuinely threatened by barbers. The example most often cited by the sheriff's office is that on one occasion, an inspector said she left a shop after she saw that a barber had a handgun in his waistband.
"The Sheriff's Office tells that story a bit differently. Sheriff's officials have said the barber with the gun showed it to the woman and threatened her. However, the inspector in question said in her internal report of the incident that she saw it in his waistband and became uncomfortable, not that he specifically threatened her.
"According to DBPR internal documents, that incident happened in a shop in Casselberry, which is not in Orange County. The shop where that incident was alleged to have occurred was not among those targeted in these operations, though its sister shop (Just Blaze) in Orange County was. And though the inspector said she felt threatened, she did not call 911, as would be agency policy in such a situation."
All in all, not a bad tipoff from the nightly local news.