About a week after news broke that North Miami Beach police officers were using mugshots of black men for target practice, the city’s police chief J. Scott Dennis met quietly with a group of black residents to apologize in an emergency meeting.
“Listen you got to hear it from the heart. We’re sorry,” he said to about 40 people in the Washington Park Community Center. “My police department is sorry and I represent that department. We made a mistake.”
This was the first time Dennis addressed city residents publicly about the practice. He chose to do it in the Washington Park community, a once-segregated black neighborhood in North Miami Beach that is predominantly African-American.
“I sincerely apologize. Not only to the families of the six men who were on that picture, but also to the entire community,” he said.
Dennis told the crowd he didn’t know about the practice of using real mugshots until he received a complaint from the sister of one of men on the target sheet in December. She found her brother’s photo pockmarked with bullet holes at a Medley gun range.
Dennis stressed that this wasn’t about race. The two snipers in the police department who used the mugshots of black men for target practice also used old mugshots of whites and Hispanics, he said.
But at a time when there’s a national discussion happening around race and how police treat black men in the wake of deadly incidents in Ferguson and New York -- for many who attended the emergency community meeting, this is about race.
Danielle Williams said she’s concerned that if police are using photos of black men for target practice, her 16-year-old son could become an actual target when he visits his grandparents in North Miami Beach.
“I would like to see them come to the table and discuss the issue of race sensitivity with everything that’s going on,” she said. “I think it’s time to have a serious conversation and this wasn’t it."
The practice of using mugshots of people the department arrested years ago for target practice has ended, Dennis said. From now on, North Miami Beach will only use images provided from a commercial vendor.
But the police chief’s apology did not quell the concerns of most people who attended the emergency meeting.
In just under about a half hour the meeting was officially over. Dennis and city officials left, but almost everyone else stayed and kept on talking. When asked if they were satisfied with Dennis’ apology, those who stuck around replied, “No.”
And so the emergency meeting called by the city to apologize to residents turned into an impromptu conversation on how to make things better between the police and the city’s black community.
Local activist Nathaniel Wilcox said the community can’t afford to stay quiet.
“You got to get on top of this right now,” said Wilcox. “Now is the time to organize and hold the police chief, hold the city manager responsible.
Pastor Alberta Williams said she would help lead the conversation.
“We don’t want them to sweep this under the rug,” said the 85-year-old who wore a green Martin Luther King, Jr., T-shirt with the words “I Have A Dream” on the front.
Another pastor, Dwayne Fudge, suggested that the North Miami Beach Police Department needs a liaison between police and residents. He and others are asking the community to channel their anger into an actual plan.
Residents say they’ll schedule another meeting to put together a list of demands to the city. They say it’ll include racial sensitivity training for police and a review of all police policies.
The city has also announced preliminary plans to team up with the NAACP to host community conversations about race.
A day after the meeting, North Miami Beach Councilwoman Barbara Kramer said the city has suffered a significant blow to its reputation nationally and among residents.
“I guess they won’t realize how sincere that apology is until we take action,” she said. “This is not going to get swept under the rug.”