"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.