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Illegal barbering? Let's focus on real crime problems

Are you sleeping more soundly this week?

I know I am, now that the Orange County Sheriff's Office has concluded an unprecedented sweep of barbershops that yielded nearly three-dozen charges of … wait for it … criminal barbering.

Sure, homicides are up 45 percent this year. But why focus on those taking human lives when we have scofflaws improperly taking out cowlicks?

I don't want to downplay the tragic results of a bad coif, because I've certainly seen haircuts that looked criminal.

But before last week, I thought that had more to do with Justin Bieber as a trendsetter than actual illegal activity.

Yet, as the Sentinel's Jeff Weiner reported last Sunday, the Orange County Sheriff's Office made history by arresting 35 people on misdemeanor charges of "barbering without a license" after spending several months on the matter.

To put that in perspective, Jeff checked the records and found that only three other people in the entire state went to jail on the same charges in the past decade.

And, according to witnesses, some of these arrests were the result of warrantless sweeps where officers swarmed shops that had kids inside, slapping handcuffs on barbers.

Can you imagine?

You've taken little Johnny in for a $9 touch-up, and suddenly, it's: "Put your hands up! And step away from the clippers!"

Part of what makes this so frustrating is that there are many law-enforcement advocates who push to give the cops more resources.

I'm one of them.

On multiple occasions, I've suggested giving the Sheriff's Office more money, even going so far as to rewrite state laws, so that hotel taxes can be used in a way to keep both visitors and residents safe.

But never did I imagine this money would be used to take on Supercuts.

Except it wasn't Supercuts, was it?

No, these sweeps targeted shops in the poorer parts of town, predominantly black- and Hispanic-owned shops in the Pine Hills area.

Perhaps it's tempting to rationalize this by saying: "That's where the crime is, right?"

Except, once again, it wasn't.

At least not in these cases.

In the 39 arrests made, there was a grand total of one felony arrest.

I humbly submit that, if the Sheriff's Office barged into any 10 businesses in Central Florida — from stock brokers to law firms — they'd find just as much contraband. Maybe more.

So why target these barbershops in poor parts of town?

Well, on that front, the Sheriff's Office seemed to want to have it two ways.

There was the explanation that the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation needed help regulating licensed businesses. (Though, another missing part of this story is all of the alleged "victims" — no multitudes customers crying out for government interaction in response to criminally negligent or unsanitary haircuts.)

And then there was the wink-and-the nod explanation that: Well, we found guns and drugs, didn't we?

The office's report even tries to play that card in the first paragraph, making reference to "criminal activity," shootouts and "alleged illegal gambling and narcotics sales and consumptions."

Except, hardly any such arrests were actually made.

In the end, these warrantless raids ended up being such a bust and attracting such national attention that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation said late last week that it wouldn't team up with the Sheriff's Office to do another one until it could conduct a full review of what happened here.

Good for them.

And late Friday — after the state announced a halt from its end — Sheriff Jerry Demings began to acknowledge some shortcomings as well. "There's no question we could've done things better," he said.

He didn't give too many specifics and still defended his office's use of time and resources. But he did say his office probably didn't need to cuff and haul off to jail so many of those involved.

That seems safe to say. After all, we're talking about working men and women who violated a bureaucratic policy that usually results in a fine or suggestion that they simply attain the proper license.

Listen, law-abiding citizens want serious and violent crime stopped. I know most of the courageous deputies who patrol our streets do, too. That's why they're there.

And if we have a barbershop — or, heck, a law firm, carwash or canasta club, for that matter — acting as a front for criminal activity, then, amen! Take 'em down.

Collect the intelligence. Get a warrant. And lock the bad guys up.

But until then, with so many seriously bad things going on, improper haircuts aren't worth this kind of time, force or manpower.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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