No place like home 

It was a hot August afternoon last year when D. Uriyah Ajamu peered from the front door of his Parramore home to find two men pointing rifles at him.

Ajamu's first thought was irrational. Like a carjacking, he thought the two men wanted to steal his house.

The two men weren't thieves. They were part of an Orlando Police SWAT team conducting a search warrant on the Grand Avenue house Ajamu shares with his mother. And what they did to Ajamu, a 51-year-old African American with no record of drug arrests, is yet another example of how the innocent often find themselves in the crosshairs of law enforcement fighting the so-called War on Drugs.

Police first told Ajamu to lie on the ground -- something he says he had difficulty doing since a 1997 car accident left his knees, back and neck in bad condition. Once on the ground, Ajamu lay in his foyer until Sgt. Charles Robinson and another officer dragged him 21 feet out of the house, throwing him face down onto his driveway.

Handcuffed, his eyeglasses smeared with blood from his lip, Ajamu yelled out, "Am I under arrest?"

An officer responded, Ajamu alleges, by stomping on the back of his neck and ordering Ajamu to "Shut the fuck up." Several cops then began laughing, Ajamu claims.

He was led to the front of his home and detained for three hours while police sorted out the arrest. It turned out the SWAT team was looking for Jarvis Armstrong, a 22-year-old Parramore man who had been arrested for a number of petty offenses, including a 1997 charge for possession of crack cocaine that was later dropped.

According to documents filed at the Orange County Courthouse, a "confidential reliable informant" -- a "snitch" in street parlance -- had paid Armstrong $130 for two grams of crack (equal in weight to two packets of sugar) on three separate occasions last August.

The purchases led police to obtain a search warrant from Orange County Court Judge Frederick Lauten for 620 West Grand Ave., which Armstrong rented, and the lime green house adjacent to it at 614 West Grand Ave., which police believed to be a vacant house where Armstrong sold crack.

The warrant said the house was a single family residence. But it wasn't. It was instead a duplex in which Ajamu lived in the back unit. Armstrong allegedly sold drugs from the front vacant apartment, unit B.

Ajamu says police realized their error when a hooded officer walked up to Ajamu and, in the presence of Lt. Dotson Ellis, who was the officer in charge of the search warrant operation, said, "Hey, you got the wrong man."

Instead of releasing Ajamu, officers took him to Lucerne Medical Center, where he waited for four hours, handcuffed to a gurney without being allowed the use of a bathroom.

"I'm stinking, I'm smelling," Ajamu says. Then, at 10:30 p.m., a nurse told him it was time to do X-rays. Doctors sewed up his lip and treated abrasions to his knee and elbow. At midnight -- police having long disappeared -- Ajamu was unceremoniously released by doctors.

Ajamu has retained attorney Howard Marks. Marks has yet to file a complaint, but will likely claim Ajamu suffered intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and false imprisonment.

Marks filed those same charges last month on behalf of Keith Gibbs, another African-American whom Orlando police roughed up during an October 1998 confrontation. In that case, police tried to buy marijuana from Gibbs at his home after a neighbor falsely reported that Gibbs was selling pot `Tactical Error, April 6`.

Marks says the two cases are similar in that "the OPD has no regard for individual rights when it strikes at the minority community."

Police department spokesman Sgt. Orlando Rolon referred calls to the city's Office of Legal Affairs, citing potential litigation. But during an internal investigation that found no police wrongdoing, Lt. Ellis, Sgt. Robinson and other officers denied Ajamu was stomped and claimed Ajamu was belligerent while being detained.

"How do you define belligerent?" Ajamu asks. "Was I being belligerent because I kept asking about a warrant? Is it belligerent to ask an intelligent question?"

One of the things that concerns Marks is that Ajamu was given a drug urinalysis, violating his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure. Lucerne staff provided results of the tests for opiates, cannabis, cocaine and other drugs -- all negative -- to police.

If Police Chief Jerry Demings' administration is embarrassed about the Ajamu case, it isn't showing it. Ajamu received no apologies after the incident. In fact, Ajamu, who worked for the city in the mid-1970s, says police threatened to throw him out of police headquarters when he went there to collect documents for his case.

Marks says he's felt hostility from city administrators as well. City attorneys sent him a letter saying he'd be charged $1,000 for copies of search warrants relating to Ajamu's case. The price reflected retrieving warrants by address rather than by case number, city attorneys say.

Whatever the outcome of Ajamu's complaint, the search of his home was a failure by any standard. The charges against Armstrong were dropped last March -- seven months after Ajamu was detained -- because Orlando police failed to locate Jeff David Sirk, the informant who allegedly bought crack from Armstrong. Without Sirk, the state attorney's office lost its key witness.

Meantime, the drug war goes on, much to the indifference of the Anti-Drug Industrial Complex -- law enforcement, state legislators and members of Congress. Many of these same officials expressed outrage when a Cuban boy's "rights" were violated by federal agents bursting into a Miami home and "kidnapping" him while his citizenship was sorted out. Yet when it comes to lawful American citizens being snatched from their homes for $130 worth of drugs, politicians shrug it off as the price we must pay to beat "the bad guys."

"They get pretty outraged when it's their civil liberties or a political position they agree with that has been violated," Marks says. "But these things happen in their back yard every day. Here you have someone who has been unlawfully searched, unlawfully detained, a total disregard for his rights, and nobody complains about it. It's one of the great ironies we live with."


More by William Dean Hinton


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