The state agency that paired with the Orange County Sheriff's Office for a series of unorthodox inspections of Pine Hills-area barbershops told the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday that it will halt the practice until an internal review is completed.
The decision by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation came just four days after the Sentinel reported that agency inspectors, accompanied by as many as 14 deputies, including narcotics agents, entered at least nine barbershops in the Pine Hills area in two sweeps on Aug. 21 and Sept. 17.
DBPR spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said that the agency — which regulates everything from contractors to nail salons — has suspended all joint inspections with law enforcement officers while it conducts a review of its operations with the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
During the two sweeps, and a smaller operation in October, deputies arrested 39 people — 35 on a misdemeanor charge of barbering without an active license. Arrests on that charge are rare.
While 72 barbers have been issued citations for unlicensed barbering since July 1, and 150 were cited in the year prior to that, the barbers arrested in the Orange County operations account for nearly all of the 38 jail bookings on that charge statewide in the last 10 years, records show.
Meale said DBPR Secretary Charlie Liem decided to suspend the operations after he was briefed by his staff this week on details of the Orange County operations. Meale cited the agency's "lack of control" of law officers during such operations as the reason for the review, which she said would be conducted by the agency's Inspector General's Office.
The Orange County Sheriff's Office had not responded to requests for comment
Barbers affected by the operations described them as overly theatrical raids, involving deputies handcuffing shop employees during business hours and in front of customers.
When told that DBPR was suspending those operations, Brian Berry, owner of Strictly Skillz, one of the shops targeted in the Aug. 21 operations, said he was glad to hear it. His shop was fully in compliance when visited by deputies and state inspectors.
"You don't want to set a precedent that anybody can come in with the state board and disrupt business," Berry said. He said he'd had preliminary discussions with civil rights lawyers and "we're keeping our options open."
Following the operations, deputies said they found evidence of various criminal activities, including guns, drugs and gambling.
At Just Blaze on Semoran Boulevard in Apopka, 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.
Otherwise, the court and jail records show two sweeps resulted in three arrests on misdemeanor charges other than barbering without an active license or employing unlicensed barbers.
Meanwhile, as the DBPR begins its review, other groups in the state have announced investigations into the operations.
Doug Guetzloe, conservative radio show host and Central Florida political consultant, announced that he is "demanding a review of the rules associated" with the raids, in his official capacity as a member of the State of Florida Small Business Regulatory Advisory Council.
Also, the Florida Civil Rights Association announced on Wednesday that it intends to conduct its own investigation to determine whether the Sheriff's Office and DBPR used the operations as a way to target barbers in the largely black and Hispanic community of Pine Hills.
In a prepared statement, the group said it had "launched a racial profile investigation against both the State Regulator Agency and the Sheriff's Office to determine if the policies, procedures or practices used by law enforcement violate the civil rights of nearly 40 barbers and their customers."
Jeff Weiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5171.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun