Tactical error 

The tall, bearded man at the door the night of Nov. 10, 1998, was not just another visitor to Keith Gibbs' College Park home.

"You got any?" the man asked.

"What you talking about?" Gibbs answered.

The man wanted marijuana. "My boys always come here to buy pot," the guy said.

"No, I don't think so."

Gibbs was right. The man's friends had never been to the house to buy drugs because the man, Michael Stevens, was an undercover police detective. And whether he was tired because he'd just gotten off work, or because his daughters were watching from the window, Gibbs couldn't keep his anger in. "Don't come around here talking about buying no weed," he yelled at the man. "Can't you see my kids in there? Get the fuck off my property."

"Dude, I'm leaving," the man said, backpedaling in Gibbs' yard. "I'm not trying to stress you."

"Get off my property, cracker," Gibbs shouted.

The slur stung -- or the man wanted to make it look that way. "Why you have to call me a cracker?" he yelled, now moving toward Gibbs, who stood several inches shorter. "Why you have to stress me like that?"

Gibbs grabbed for a golf club he kept in his front room. But as he stepped toward the man, he discovered he was part of a ruse, one that Orlando Police executed 40 times last year.

Drawing his gun, Stevens blurted, "Put it down now! Police officer! Put it down now! Get on the fucking ground!"

The confrontation was recorded on an audio cassette wired to Stevens. The next 20 seconds is unintelligible from the amount of yelling, radio cackle and dogs barking. Eventually Stevens says, "I'm out in the street walking away -- son of a bitch -- you're going to crack my skull and call me a cracker? That's a hate crime."

If it was, it bore no relation to the reason Stevens knocked on Gibbs' door. Gibbs had no pot to sell, though police kept him lying face-down in his yard for nearly an hour, his hands cuffed behind him, while they searched his house before putting him in jail for the night on a charge of assaulting an officer -- a charge that was soon thereafter dropped.

And that, critics say, is what's wrong with the "buy-and-bust" tactic used that night: Cops can create more problems than they solve when they invade the privacy of innocent people while fighting the war on drugs.

Citing a possible lawsuit, the Orlando Police Department -- which calls the tactic "knock and talk" -- would not comment on Gibbs' case. But the approach is under new scrutiny after a March 16 incident in New York City, in which an undercover police officer tried to buy drugs from an off-duty security guard. Like Gibbs, Patrick Dorismond was offended. He began fighting with the officer, and was shot dead by a backup cop who had raced to the scene. According to reports, the backup officer thought he heard Dorismond's friend call for a gun.

"The Orlando Police Department was over-aggressive," says Howard Marks, a Winter Park civil-rights attorney representing Gibbs in a lawsuit being prepared against Orlando police. "They did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to approach Keith Gibbs. They threatened his family, and he is the one who winds up being beaten and arrested. It's outrageous conduct on behalf of the Orlando Police Department, and the conduct itself is unconstitutional."

Critics say such incidents don't warrant the power that the public permits law enforcement in investigating drug activity. Even when the busts are legitimate, police too often target those offenders who are better served by drug counseling than by forcing them into a prolonged fight with the legal system.

A handful of Seminole County high-school kids are now in that unenviable position after deputies caught them in a buy-and-bust sting last month. Taxpayers spent $34,000 for the seven-month operation that nabbed dealers selling small amounts of pot.

"The overall problem with the buy-and-bust is that, at best, if everything went well and police have targeted the right people, all you're doing is taking low-level dealers off the street," says Deborah Small, the policy director for the Lindesmith Center, a five-year-old nonprofit in New York City dedicated to drug law reform. "For every one of them, there's someone ready to take their place. For the most part, they're primarily `selling` to take care of a drug habit."

Adds Michael LaFay, a former public defender who now argues drug cases for a statewide prosecution team based in Orlando: "The war on drugs, in my opinion, is not going to be won at the street level. It's not going to be won by arresting people selling a couple of rocks of crack cocaine to support their own habits."

That's not to say that every buy-and-bust occurs at street level. Officers have used the tactic to buy drugs with a street value in the millions of dollars. But most street-level buying is done in "cold contact," meaning the buyer and seller don't know each other.

Despite cases such as Gibbs' and Dorismond's, police and prosecutors defend the buy-and-bust as a mainstay of crime fighting. How else does the public expect law enforcement to enter the drug marketplace, where neither buyer nor seller is considered a victim of a crime -- at least not in the traditional sense? "It is a valid technique to address a social ill, and has been successful in developing cases for 25 years," says Willie May, a state prosecutor and chairman of the law committee for the Orange County Bar Association.

"I would never conclude that selling drugs is a victimless crime," he continues. "It degrades communities and property where people sell drugs, and it degrades quality for people who live there."

But quality of life is no more heightened when police single out innocent people as criminals.

Officers first suspected Gibbs after a neighbor reported teen-agers were coming and going from his house late at night and on weekends. The neighbor also said Gibbs was using a barbecue grill to mask the smell of pot he smoked outside.

Police ran surveillance on Gibbs' house and had attempted to buy pot once before. Police even went so far as to dig twice through his garbage but produced no "signs of drug use or sales," as the police complaint form says.

The 35-year-old painter had been home about two minutes that night when his daughter told him he had a visitor at the door of their East King Street home.

Gibbs, who is black, says he grew angry after Stevens said he'd been to the house before. His first impulse was jealousy, thinking that his white girlfriend, Sherrie Dimarsico, had been messing around with this "regular young white dude" at his doorstep.

He called Dimarsico to the door. She didn't know Stevens, either. Gibbs says he would have been content to let him walk away, but he was tired and irritable after a long day of work. "I snapped," he says.

Gibbs picked up a four iron he kept behind a chair and, he says, took a couple of steps toward Stevens. In a report he filed later, Stevens countered that Gibbs ran at him with the club lifted overhead. The detective also wrote that he heard Gibbs say he was going inside to get his "gat" -- a street term for a gun -- though Gibbs can be heard clearly on the tape saying, "Let me get my golf club."

Gibbs says he didn't hear Stevens identify himself as a cop and thought he was being robbed. Instead, they took him downtown and booked him for assault on an officer. Gibbs spent the night in jail.

Two weeks later, Gibbs received a letter from prosecutors saying they were dropping the charge.

Gibbs, however, continues to pursue the matter. The case that Marks is preparing to file in state court alleges false arrest, malicious prosecution, assault, battery and violation of privacy rights.

The two sides dispute whether Stevens kicked Gibbs as he lay handcuffed. An internal Orlando Police investigation cleared Stevens of that allegation, though he was reprimanded for calling Gibbs a "son of a bitch."

Yet critics say even when police don't bully anyone, the buy-and-bust remains dependent on racial profiling and targets low-income minorities living in inner cities. And politicians' narrow-mindedness in the war on drugs emphasizes law enforcement at the expense of treatment and prevention, says Small, of the Lindesmith Center. Police could take small-time offenders to treatment facilities instead of jail, where they languish in a cycle of drug dependency, underemployment and the legal system. As it is, someone busted for drugs now has a hard time finding a job, receiving student aid or qualifying for welfare, imposing "greater impediments for them to get their act together," Small says. "We exacerbate their problem."

The example of the Seminole County schools shows how that ball starts rolling. Two sheriff's deputies posed as students for seven months, hanging out as much as possible with the drug crowd. The surveillance work, an extension of the buy-and-bust tactic, led to the arrest of 21 students at Oviedo and Seminole high schools, mainly for selling small amounts of marijuana. On March 21, with TV cameras capturing their images, the kids were led away in handcuffs.

The sheriff's office said the surveillance was necessary to accomplish a "safety audit" of the schools; school officials say they wanted to see who might be making bombs or carrying guns.

But not everyone buys the safety angle. "That's the necessary spin they need to make it appear justified," says Mark NeJame, an Orlando criminal defense attorney whose clients are often caught in the buy and bust. More than likely, it was done to send a message to other students, which is what Paul Hagerty, Seminole County's school superintendent, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Last week, state attorneys said they were considering whether to try the students -- some as young as 16 -- as adults, facing harsher adult penalties. There's also the question of when, or if, these kids will ever graduate.

"It makes great headlines," Marks says. "It makes people feel good, but I don't think they understand that it undermines our system of government."

"It's Machiavellian, where the ends justify the means," NeJame adds. "It's the police infiltrating the educational institutions by lying and being deceptive."

A better approach, says Small, is "harm reduction" that considers all facets of criminal drug activity. "As long as we have a ‘war on drugs,' it requires a focus on law enforcement," she says. "That is how you fight a war -- with your troops. A war keeps you in that mindset. It keeps you from other solutions."

Those other solutions could keep people like Gibbs from unfriendly encounters with police. Consequently, police would hear fewer complaints about how they operate.

"I'm so glad he didn't hit the man," says Gibbs' girlfriend.

Gibbs adds, "He would have shot me then."


More by William Dean Hinton


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