Criminal Barbering? Raids at Orange County Shops Lead to Arrests, Raise Questions

Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel, November 7, 2010

As many as 14 armed Orange County deputies, including narcotics agents, stormed Strictly Skillz barbershop during business hours on a Saturday in August, handcuffing barbers in front of customers during a busy back-to-school weekend.

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 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.

Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Dave Ogden, who commands the area that includes Pine Hills, described the operations as a “minuscule” part of a larger effort to snuff out crime in one of Central Florida’s notorious hot spots.

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No ordinary inspection?

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Barbers and witnesses at several shops told the Orlando Sentinel that deputies shouted and cursed during the raids, demanding the location of illegal drugs, which they searched for extensively. They never found more than misdemeanor amounts of marijuana at eight of the nine shops they raided.

The lone exception: Just Blaze on Semoran Boulevard in Apopka, where an arrest report shows deputies found Ski Joseph Vasquez, 40, with “2 baggies of cocaine in a prescription bottle” and cutting agents in the barbershop’s office during the Sept. 17 sweep. Vasquez was arrested on drug- and gun-related charges after deputies said they found a handgun in his car.

On the same day, deputies raided two other barbershops and found no illegal activity other than unlicensed barbering. And besides the arrest at Just Blaze, reports show the two sweeps turned up the following: evidence of gambling, equipment “that appeared to be used” to make pirated DVDs and CDs, “some sort of tax service,” two handguns and misdemeanor amounts of marijuana.

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‘Cornerstone of the community’

To those who live in the communities they serve, these barbershops are more than places to get a haircut.

“They are the centers of political discourse and political organization in black communities,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University.

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She said by violating the barbershop’s role as a “safe place” in the black community, deputies may have placed the community’s trust in local law enforcement at risk. “It’s exactly counterproductive,” she said, adding that targeting minority barbershops sends a message about “which communities deserve to be disrupted and which don’t.”

Still, Bishop Kelvin L. Cobaris of Empowerment Ministries Church of Pine Hills defended the actions of the Sheriff’s Office. He said deputies have been effective in reducing crime in the area, and if the searches were legal and criminal activity was discovered, the deputies’ approach to entering the shops “shouldn’t matter.”

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Criminal barbering?

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Florida Department of Law Enforcement records turned up only 38 jail bookings on the misdemeanor charge across the entire state in the past 10 years–and all but three of those arrests occurred during Orange County operations during the past few months.

Most of the barbers charged with licensing violations as a result of the sheriff’s operation pleaded no contest and were ordered to pay fines of about $500–which is about equal to the ones inspectors issue when a barber or stylist has an expired license.

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A history of noncompliance?

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In terms of demographics, the shops had clear similarities: Their clientele, owners and staff were predominantly black or Hispanic, and all were located in or near high-crime areas.

And, although the Orange County barbershop raids were unprecedented in Florida, they’re not the first of their kind.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Moreno Valley, Calif., among others, after authorities conducted what the civil-rights group described in its complaint as “a series of raid-style searches” of black barbershops.

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