Florida Keys News
Monday, July 29, 2013
CRB clears policeofficers of 'racial profiling' charge

Two Key West police officers did not harass a delivery driver who says the color of his skin inspired traffic stops earlier this year, the city's appointed Citizen Review Board ruled this week in split votes.

The evidence did not show that Kenneth Lawrence, 47, was targeted by white patrol officers because he is black as he rode his scooter in Old Town, the board decided.

There were no allegations that officers used slurs and there was nothing on tape since motorcycle cops such as the one in question, Officer Randall Hartle, are not outfitted with the "i-cop" recorders affixed to patrol cars.

But the case troubled enough members of the panel to the point where it voted to direct staff to find Lawrence, who didn't attend Monday's hearing, and ask him to attend its August meeting.

Lawrence couldn't be reached for comment for this story. Board members spent 1½ hours hashing out the complaint last week at Old City Hall, 510 Greene St., where even Judy Martinez, the one resident who turned out to watch the meeting, left early.

The meetings are not videotaped, per the board's decision that not recording them makes people who may file complaints against officers feel more comfortable.

"In its entirety, I do think there is a problem here," said board member Virginia Altobello. "He felt demeaned and I understand why. I think he had a right to complain."

Despite the 4-3 vote, the board didn't find either officer in violation of police department rules.

"I do know there is racial profiling and it happens and we all know that," said Haywood Magby, a board member since 2009 and the only black person on the majority-white panel. "Sometimes it's difficult to prove."

Joining Altobello and Magby in questioning the officers' conduct was Michael Behrend and Joe Pais.

"This is Key West, not Naples," Pais said, over the idea that Lawrence wasn't driving properly due to carrying a dog and a cooler for deliveries on the scooter's back.

"I don't think any officer has the right to lecture anyone or tell people how to behave on a motor scooter," Pais said. "I see this everyday. People have dogs not just on scooters but in baskets on bikes. Good Lord, three Chihuahuas in one bicycle basket."

Chairman Larry Beaver, Kevin Collins and Tom Milone also serve on the board, and were not as concerned Monday that the police department had any racial discrimination going on in its ranks.

"Racial profiling is a powder keg allegation," the board's attorney, Robert Cintron, told them at one point.

An internal investigation showed "no credible evidence" to support the allegations of profiling or breaking the "decorum" code for officers, Lt. Jim Benkoczy, commander of support services, reported in a July 12 memo.

Chief Donie Lee also signed off on the conclusions that freed Hartle and Sgt. Robert Allen from the review.

The police brass ordered statistics of Hartle's traffic stops from 2012 and 2013 and found nothing out of the ordinary.

Of Hartle's 576 traffic stops in 2012, 34 were of blacks, or 6 percent, the department said.

Key West's black population is about 10 percent, according to the 2010 census, Benkoczy noted.

Lawrence said it wasn't the words, but how they were said that made him feel disrespected by the officers.

Instead, Lawrence accused the cops of treating him with a "condescending" attitude and brushing off his later complaint of harassment.

"Officer Hartle stops me and says things that causes me to feel this is racial in nature," Lawrence wrote to the review board about his 10 a.m. April 28 stop on Duval Street. "He made inappropriate comments about my dog and myself."

Lawrence was making deliveries on a scooter at the time and he likes to carry his dog in tow. On that particular Sunday morning, some tourists were snapping pictures of the dog and delivery driver combo, said Lawrence.

Hartle told him he was making a "spectacle," Lawrence said.

At issue April 28 was whether Lawrence was driving safely, the police said.

That same day, Lawrence asked Hartle to see a supervisor. But Lawrence said when Hartle called for one he heard a voice refuse the request since it was "that delivery guy."

Lawrence went to the police department to meet with Sgt. Robert Allen, who Lawrence said "refused" to take his complaint.

"Sgt. Allen basically threatens me by telling me that when he sees me and even if he is not (on duty) he is going to screw with me!" Lawrence wrote. "This is unprofessional and unacceptable."

Hartle and Allen were notified in May 16 memos that they were under investigation.

Lawrence has three open traffic court cases from this year, including the April 28 allegation.

Of the three, Hartle gave him two. The department's conclusion was that it's not uncommon for that to happen in such a small town.

Lawrence didn't show up at the meeting that included the hearing over his complaint against Hartle and Allen.

"He's been notified formally by mail," said Susan Srch, executive director of the Citizen Review Board, which has been reviewing police complaints since 2004.

Srch said she couldn't reach Lawrence by phone in several attempts before the meeting.

"It takes a lot of guts to come to a place like this and sit in front of people," said Collins.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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