Though he defended the actions of his deputies during a series of unorthodox inspections of barbershops in the Pine Hills area, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said today there was "no question we could have done things better."
In two sweeps on Aug. 21 and Sept. 17, and a smaller October operation, 35 people were arrested on a misdemeanor charge of "barbering without an active license," records show. Demings said if his agency could conduct the operations over again, deputies would issue orders to appear in court, akin to traffic citations, rather than take people to jail for cutting hair.
"I would prefer that we not make custodial arrests for these minor violations," he said.
Meanwhile, Demings and other officials questioned the accuracy of statements made by customers and barbers about the operations in an Orlando Sentinel story this week. Many had described the joint operations as overly theatrical raids, while deputies described their entry into the shops as "low-key."
Demings, along with Capt. Dave Ogden, Cpl. Keith Vidler, Lt. Ron Chapman and other deputies involved in the operations, met with reporters this afternoon to address the series of inspections of Pine Hills-area barbershops conducted by the Sheriff's Office in conjunction with a state inspection agency.
That agency — the Department of Business and Professional Regulation — said Thursday it would halt the practice until an internal review of the joint operations is completed.
Officials said today they actually visited a total of 45 area shops, including the nine they said were specifically identified by licensing inspectors for the two joint sweeps.
The nine shops selected for the sweeps were predominately black or Hispanic in ownership and clientelle. Deputies said many of the 45 total shops inspected were not minority-owned.
In a statement distributed Friday, sheriff's spokesman Capt. Angelo Nieves explained that "Captain Ogden directed his personnel to check multiple similar entities within [the sector] to avoid any inference that anyone was being 'targeted' by the detail."
Ogden said Friday that in most of the inspections not included in the two main sweeps, deputies quickly entered and left after finding no licensing violations.
Still, the 35 arrests in the August and September Pine Hills sweeps amounted to the bulk of the 38 people arrested on the minor barbering offense during the past 10 years, state records show.
Deputies took the meeting as an opportunity to respond to many of the allegations made by barbers, customers and members of the community about the operations.
Records show as many as 14 deputies, including narcotics agents, were involved in operations at the nine barbershops targeted in the two main Pine Hills-area sweeps on Aug. 21 and Sept. 17. Vidler said Friday that many of those deputies were not directly involved in the inspections.
At one shop in particular, though barbers and customers who said they'd been there that day described about a dozen deputies being involved in an inspection, Vidler said as few as three uniformed deputies entered the shop, which he said had no customers at the time.
Vidler also stated that the store's owner, Brian Berry of Strictly Skillz, told deputies arriving at the shop that he knew they were coming and had "cleaned house." Berry told the Sentinel that he had been told by another shop that inspectors were en-route, and had gone through his shop to ensure there were no obvious health or other violations.
A licensing inspector later determined that Strictly Skillz was in compliance and everyone working had a valid license displayed in plain view — but not before barbers said they were put in handcuffs. Vidler said that was because a barber was carrying a concealed weapon deputies later determined he had a permit for.
In explaining their justification for participating in the operations, sheriff's officials said Friday they'd been told by licensing inspectors that they'd been ignored or even threatened during inspections in the past, which the agency also has said.
However, DBPR spokeswoman Jennifer Meale cited the agency's "lack of control" of law officers during such operations as the reason that it has suspended all joint operations with law enforcement while it conducts an internal review.
Clarifying that the move was not an indictment of the Sheriff's Office in particular, and calling such joint operations a helpful tool, she said that the agency would analyze, among other things, the relationship between the responsibilities and interests of the DBPR and those of law officers.
"Our focus is only on the licensing issue," she said.
Barbers at the some of the shops targeted have accused the Sheriff's Office of using licensing inspectors' authority to enter shops at will as a means to conduct warrantless raids without probable cause.
Though no search warrants were obtained for the operations, deputies said they found illicit materials in back rooms, closets, offices and work stations during inspections. Just a few people were charged with any of these violations.
Demings deflected specific accusations from Berry and others of inappropriate activity by deputies during the operations, saying that those who feel they were wronged should go through proper channels.
"All he has to do is come make the complaint," Demings said.
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