Sunday, November 02, 2003


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By William Fisher

Two things I read last week made a big impression on me. The first was a newspaper account of efforts to transform Saddam’s Hussein’s brutal police department into a positive force for security and civil society. The second was a description, in the US State Department’s Report on Human Rights, of the gross human rights abuses still being perpetrated by the police throughout most of the Middle East.

Why the big impression? These readings didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know (I used to live in Cairo). But, for some reason, they took me back to another time in my life when I personally witnessed something very similar – and turned out being a victim of it myself. But I didn’t experience this police malfeasance in the Middle East. I experienced it in Volusia County, Florida.

Volusia County is in central Florida. The county seat is a small town named Deland, between Orlando and Daytona Beach. There, in the early 1950s, I worked as the county seat Bureau Chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. The local cops, the county sheriff’s office, and the county courts, were part of my beat. In fact, that was one of the attractions of the job; my college sociology textbook identified Volusia County as the most corrupt county in the United States. I wanted to see for myself. Here’s some of what I saw:

In those days, law enforcement officers worked on the ‘fee system’. That meant that their incomes were dependent on the number of citizens they arrested, plus a proportion of the bail bonds the ‘suspects’ posted. One of the results is this quaint entrepreneurial arrangement was that all the cops’ paddy-wagons were mobilized every day at around sundown for sorties into what was then referred to as ‘colored town’, i.e. the part of town on the wrong side of the tracks where the ‘black folk’ lived in their shanty shacks.

Once inside the war zone, the cops swooped down and arrested everything that wasn’t nailed down. Charges ranged from drunk and disorderly to disturbing the peace to resisting arrest to driving with a broken taillight to blocking police access to a crime scene. Each night, dozens of people were arrested, put in
paddy-wagons, and dispatched to the local jail, whereupon the ‘homeland security’ fleet turned around and went back for more. Everyone, that is, save those few lucky enough to have $25 in their pockets to pay off the arresting officer. Moreover, in the best spirit of Adam Smith, there was a healthy competition between the local police and the sheriff’s office to win the headcount.

Saturday night was the biggest night of the week; the headcount climbed into the hundreds. As there was no night court, the arrested who could not come up with the money to post bond spent the night in jail. In the morning, they appeared in court, were given a perfunctory chance to enter a plea, and then sentenced to various jail terms, usually up to 30 days. The length of the sentence was based solely on what the arresting officer had to say. Because, in these dark days of Jim Crow justice, defendants were terrified to say anything. ‘Uppity’ blacks got the stiffest sentences.

With the courageous encouragement of my editors and my newspaper’s reform-minded owners, I set out to write a series of articles about the corrupt fee system and the corrupt cops who profited from it. The series ran on page one for five days above the fold. Names were named. The named denied it all. The News-Journal supported my findings on the editorial page. Privately, some of the cops blamed it on the ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ – the owners of the News-Journal were Jewish. But most of the cops just went to ground, and in two weeks, it was back to business as usual.

Nor were my reports on corruption limited to law enforcement. The net was spread to include the County Court, where more serious felony cases were tried. Back in those days, most of the entire State of Florida was controlled by the Florida East Coast Railway and the Coca-Cola Company. Their money elected judges, un-elected judges, and bought and sold judges as if they were items on Ebay. On their payrolls was a courtly, white-haired southern gentleman who was a former Secretary of the Navy, and who was famous for being the ultimate ‘fixer’. And not only in Volusia County, but among state legislators in Tallahassee as well.

But the greatest misfortune was being black and being tried in County Court. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that ‘nigra’ defendants were routinely referred to as ‘boy’ (and worse). Many of these defendants were illiterate and therefore unable to read Court documents. Few could afford a lawyer, even if they could have found someone willing to represent them. So the court appointed the lawyers. I named at least half a dozen who arrived at Court drunk and/or slept through the entire trial.

Following my articles, I was denied access to public records and to spokesmen for law enforcement or the judicial system. Doing my job became difficult, and I assigned our local society reporter to take on the police beat. But she got about the same treatment.

For me, the end came in the form of a lanky, sun-drenched, six-foot-five Chief Constable, who arrived at my office one afternoon, with a gleaming silver plated Colt 45 on his hip and a newspaper tucked under his arm. The newspaper was the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the best-known black-owned newspapers in America at the time. I had been writing freelance pieces for the Afro for a few months, and had filed a photo essay on Deland’s ‘colored town’ (I’m told I was the first white correspondent in the paper’s history).

My huge Deputy visitor spread open the paper and there was my story and photos. “You’ve been busy, haven’t you?”, the Deputy asked, smiling. He continued: “you know, you’re giving us a bad reputation” and added his thought that I might be happier somewhere else. Unashamedly terrified, I told him I liked Deland and was just doing my job, or some such rambling. At which point the Deputy said something like “you’re a good kid and I’d hate to see anything happen to you, but folks around here are pretty mad at you…If I were you, I’d plan to be out of this town by the end of the week.”

I was, but I can’t say I’m proud of it. In my lifetime catalogue of ‘things I’d do differently’, being chased out of redneck Florida is high on my list.

Reform came slowly but steadily to Volusia County. The fee system is long gone. The Civil Rights Movement and the legislation it triggered eventually put an end to the Saturday Night Massacres. African-Americans are no longer called ‘boy’ in the Courtroom. They vote. Disney World brought a new infusion of diversity to the whole area from Orlando to Deland, and opened this sleepy
cow-town to people from everywhere, with money to spend. Today law enforcement and the judicial system are not flawless, but are as efficient and honest as those in most places across the American South. The Deland Police Department and the Volusia County Sheriff’s offices, once the private preserves of white Protestants, now include African-American officers, as well as Latinos and women.

Which brings me back to the Iraqi Police and the State Department’s Human Rights Report. Change for the better is possible, if it is catalyzed by multiple social, political and economic forces, all moving in the same direction at the same time. Let us pray.

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About the author: Bill Fisher is a retired international development specialist who has managed economic development programs in more than twenty countries for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He began his working life in journalism as a reporter for the Daytona Beach News-Journal (Fla.), a correspondent for the Associated Press, and a contributor to a number of newspapers including the Baltimore (Md.) Afro-American.