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6/29/2006

Law Enforcement

TEMPEST IN A TRAFFIC STOP
Orlando's balck leaders think police chief Michael McCoy should resign. Here's why they're wrong

 

“I’ve respected you as the Chief of the Orlando police department until this moment,” commissioner Daisy Lynum told police chief Michael McCoy in a June 20 letter. “I do not work for you and will not respond to the issues you so inappropriately sent to me. I am a defender of all that is fair and right, including the Orlando Police Department, and will continue to do so as long as I am in office.”

And with that, Lynum — a black politician with a penchant for fiery rhetoric and a high opinion of her own sense of morality — declared war on the OPD. Two days later, she and fellow black elected officials, including state Sen. Gary Siplin and Orange County commissioner Homer Hartage, announced they would send the city a letter seeking McCoy’s resignation. They believe McCoy has failed to acknowledge or react to pervasive racial profiling among his ranks, and that his response to Lynum when she raised the issue publicly after a white cop’s May 6 encounter with her son was inappropriate. So he’s got to go.

McCoy says he won’t resign, and Mayor Buddy Dyer says he won’t fire him. Which is probably best, because the record in this case doesn’t support the heated rhetoric. Far from institutionalizing the notion that all black males are criminals, McCoy’s police department is a diverse organization that goes out of its way to eliminate racial profiling — with demonstrated success. McCoy himself is a gentle, popular leader who has improved OPD on the very grounds that Lynum criticizes it.

At 1:30 a.m. May 6, 30-year-old attorney and Orange County commission candidate Juan Lynum was stopped at a red light in Parramore. Unbeknownst to him, a headlight was out on his mother’s car, which he was driving. A white rookie cop on patrol, Matthew Ochiuzzo, pulled him over. When the cop wouldn’t tell Juan why he was pulled over and demanded his driver’s license and registration, Juan got worried. So he called Mom, who in turn called McCoy, who asked an underling to look into the commissioner’s racial profiling concerns.

Then Daisy Lynum called her police liaison — essentially her bodyguard — and told him what was going on. He, in turn, called the patrol cop, who let Juan Lynum off without a citation. A supervisor reviewing the incident later ordered an $11.50 ticket mailed to Juan.

Juan filed a racial profiling complaint, but it went nowhere because the rookie cop did nothing wrong. It’s standard procedure for cops on traffic stops not to tell drivers why they’ve been pulled over until after they run their driver’s licenses. Juan Lynum rescinded his request for an internal-affairs investigation June 15.

But two weeks ago, the OPD received an anonymous complaint alleging that commissioner Lynum’s liaison, Rod Johnson, used undue influence to try to quash Juan’s ticket. Daisy Lynum denied it: “There was no problem with the ticket,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. “I just didn’t want some white boy shooting my son or Tasing him.”

The tempest sprang to life. McCoy responded to that comment by telling her that her remarks had hurt morale and reminding her that OPD has a good reputation in the black community. “I am sure that if I were to make statements such as those made by you, the results would include serious repercussions to me as Chief of Police, intense public scrutiny and immediate erosion of the community’s confidence in the Orlando Police Department,” he wrote in a June 20 letter.

That drew Lynum’s rebuke later that day, and led two days later to Lynum and some fellow black politicians — not including school board member Kat Gordon and state Rep. Bruce Antone, Dyer’s former chief of staff in the state Senate, who is now running against Juan Lynum for Hartage’s county commission seat — to call for McCoy’s resignation. Lynum, Siplin and Hartage based their demand on personal anecdotes of being pulled over under what they deemed to be unjust circumstances, which to them presents a pattern of racial profiling. (Gordon and Antone also reported similar stories, but they didn’t think that meant McCoy should resign.)

But the facts don’t support their claim. Since McCoy took over the OPD in 2002, racial-profiling complaints have plummeted from 29 that year to just one — Juan Lynum’s, which was withdrawn — so far this year. And McCoy also runs a diverse department: Nearly 21 percent of Orlando police officers are black, and almost 13 percent are Hispanic. While that’s a smaller minority percentage than Orlando’s population at large — Orlando has a 27 percent black population, for instance, compared to 14.6 percent for Florida — it’s a significantly higher percentage than the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, where only 10.4 percent of employees are black.

Soon after taking over, McCoy also instituted a policy that calls for racial profiling allegations to be investigated immediately. In fact, if Juan Lynum had told Ochiuzzo that he felt he was being profiled, Ochiuzzo would have been required by OPD policy to tell his supervisor, who in turn would have had to fill out a form and launch an inquiry. Ochiuzzo was fresh out of the academy and still in his probationary period; if he had screwed up, McCoy could have fired him.

That McCoy took Lynum’s early-morning call and immediately acted on it shows the kind of chief he is, says police union chief Sam Hoffman: “That shows you the effort he will put into it.”

McCoy doesn’t tolerate racial tension, Hoffman says. “He does everything a good chief should, and maybe more.” (It’s not like Hoffman’s a Dyer toady, either; last year the union had a nasty fight with the administration over pay increases. Lynum was the cops’ biggest supporter on the council; she cast the sole vote to make a pay raise retroactive, which earned her a standing ovation from the rank and file in the City Council meeting.)

But Siplin doesn’t let those facts get in his way: “It’s a combination of harassing black people as well as elected officials,” he told the Sentinel. “He ought to step down and let someone else take over who will address this problem.”

It’s not as if the three calling for McCoy’s head have been model public servants themselves. Siplin is under indictment for using state employees to do his campaign work. He says he did nothing wrong and has refused to step down from his Senate seat. Media reports last year showed that Siplin, a lawyer, has used public money to lease a building owned by his wife, and he pays higher rent and spends more on building repairs than any other Central Florida lawmaker. He also funneled more than $75,000 from his re-election fund to a company that records show is owned by a woman with the same name as his wife.

In 2002, Hartage signed a contract for a $100,000 piece of property from the YMCA, though the same property was appraised for $184,000, and other developers told local media they would have paid twice for it what Hartage did. At the same time he was sealing the deal, Hartage and the rest of the county commission approved up to $33 million in revenue bonds for the YMCA. After Hartage finalized the deal in 2004 and local media reported the details, he maintained there was no conflict.

Lynum has steered money toward her friends; most notably, the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida, upon whose board she serves. BBIF got a sweetheart deal for Parramore land in 2005. Also, earlier this year, Lynum enthusiastically supported awarding a city contract to PSA Constructors, a company owned by a personal friend, over the unanimous objection of the Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board, the first time in the CRA’s 26-year history that happened.

Lynum’s complaint about her son’s stop runs counter to her own rhetoric on crime in Parramore. In Parramore-related forums, crime comes up repeatedly as the biggest impediment to redeveloping Lynum’s long-blighted district. Lynum herself has on more than one occasion chastised the OPD for not doing enough to combat drugs and violent crime in the neighborhood. Given that Parramore is over 90 percent black, it would be difficult for cops to do anything there if they couldn’t stop black motorists with broken headlights at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday.

As Hoffman says, “Nothing added up in this case.” The union has asked Lynum to apologize. She won’t. Instead, she called for video cameras to be placed in squad cars, then joined Hartage and Siplin to call for McCoy’s ouster.

Politically, such race-baiting won’t hurt the three pols in their own races (except, perhaps, for Hartage, who is likely to lose a Democratic congressional primary campaign). However, like the boy who cried wolf, their credibility will be suspect the next time they attempt to raise an objection to a valid racial-profiling case.

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