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Criminal barbering? Raids at Orange County shops lead to arrests, raise questions

By Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel

November 7, 2010

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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.

Asked why his unit made arrests for licensing violations, Ogden said: "It was a misdemeanor crime being committed in our presence. We decided to make arrests."

But many of the barbers who were swept up in the operations are still angry months later.

"They made a big charade about it," barber Jason Abrams said, "like we were selling drugs or something."

No ordinary inspection?

Brian Berry owns Strictly Skillz, a barbershop on Pine Hills Road. He says he's used to licensing inspections, but what happened in his shop Aug. 21 was something else.

Berry said deputies entered his store and told his barbers to stop cutting and put their hands behind their backs. As barbers sat on the ground in handcuffs, he said, deputies removed his customers — including children — from the store, and began searching workstations and checking licenses without explanation.

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.

During the smaller operation Oct. 8, deputies arrested two additional people on unlicensed-barbering charges at one salon.

With the exception of two misdemeanor marijuana charges and Vasquez's arrest, deputies were unable to connect any of the illegal activity to anyone. Meanwhile, store owners reported property damage from the raids, including a large hole employees said deputies busted into a wall at 809 Barbershop in Ocoee.

However, several owners said the damage to their businesses and reputations has been much worse.

'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.

Harris-Perry, author of "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought," called the idea of deputies invading shops during both a recession and an election year "pretty horrifying."

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."

However, if barbers who weren't committing crimes were detained, "that would be something that would leave me with concerns," Cobaris said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about a dozen boys and men gathered at Strictly Skillz. Many chairs were empty. Berry said he can't be sure it was the August raid that caused business to dip. While the young boy whose hair he was cutting watched football on the nearest television, Berry watched the door. He heard the Sheriff's Office had been back out.

"They should know these barbershops are the cornerstone of the community," he said. Still, he worried his last inspection was only the first of its kind.

Criminal barbering?

If you didn't know cutting hair without a license was a crime, you're not alone. An arrest for barbering without a license is not just unusual — in the state of Florida, it's nearly unheard of.

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.

A licensing inspector determined that Strictly Skillz was in compliance and everyone working had a valid license displayed in plain view — but not before barbers said they spent an hour sitting in handcuffs.

Abrams, who works at Barber Kings in Pine Hills, said he knew his license wasn't current when inspectors entered, and he expected a slap on the wrist and a fine.

When he and the eight others arrested at Barber Kings that day got to jail, "everybody laughed at us," Abrams said. "Even the judge was like, 'Are you serious?' "

Abrams said inspectors could have just fined him, rather than parading him in handcuffs in front of his community. "It was just uncalled for," Abrams said.

A history of noncompliance?

Justifying the operations, Orange sheriff's officials said the shops targeted had displayed a lack of cooperation with state inspectors and had a history of criminal activity.

In terms of inspection history, the barbershops appear to have little in common. Records show some shops had lengthy histories of noncompliance, while others never had a complaint.

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.

The case has not yet been resolved, but records show some of the plaintiffs settled for $33,000 earlier this year.

The suit alleged that "police in Moreno Valley, in coordination with local and state inspectors," targeted black barbershops that "housed legitimate, respected businesses" that served the community as "social centers and gathering places."

Many of the west Orange County barbers made similar claims. Said Berry of Strictly Skillz, "There's a fine line [between] doing your job and violating a person's civil rights."

Jeff Weiner can be reached at 407-420-5171 or jeweiner@orlandosentinel.com.