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Napier points out that what was happening to Barber while on the force has a lot to do with the fact that many cops in Riviera Beach wanted to get promoted, but only a handful could be.
Brooks: "It was known he was a college grad, he was smart, he was eligible for promotion. In Riviera Beach, like most departments, promotion is based on how you do on written and oral examinations, your conduct, and how you get along with people. There was or is a segment of the police department who knew all about the process, and part of their motive and conspiracy was to eliminate the competition. Zedrick Barber had been a sergeant, and they knew he could be again. He always did well on exams, and he was outspoken. He stood up for what he believed in, for himself and others. And he criticized things that were wrong in the department."
None of this was happening in a vacuum. For years the Riviera Beach political atmosphere has been tumultuous, both within and outside the police department. The combination of young, poorly trained, and overworked cops, coupled with a strong police union set against a backdrop of small-town politics and numerous lawsuits against the city has made for periodic, smoldering internecine warfare among various factions and cliques inside the department.
"The white power structure and the officers who had been there early on wanted to keep it that way," says Frederick Ford, Barber's attorney. "The union power structure is white and in my opinion racist. They weren't going to let the black officers get a majority on the command staff. For example, as late as '92 or '93, they had 13 sergeants, and only one of them was black."
As an illustration of just how tumultuous things have been, consider the byzantine history of police chiefs:
In 1983 William "Boone" Darden, Florida's first black police chief, left the post and was soon convicted of bribery and sent to a federal prison; enter Frank Walker, a black ex-FBI agent and Riviera Beach native. His tenure was brief and ended after a vicious fight with the city manager. Next came Lorenzo Brooks, who was fired after a citizen recall of virtually the entire city commission. The newly elected commission rehired Walker, then fired him again in 1991. (He later won a $100,000 lawsuit related to his second departure.) James FitzGerald took over, served for a few months, then resigned to go to work for neighboring Palm Beach Gardens. Brooks was rehired and then fired again in the face of a class-action suit by white officers claiming Brooks had passed them over for promotion. (Brooks joined the lawsuit factory and filed an action claiming unfair termination.) Since 1994, police chief Jerry Poreba has reigned. In addition to cleaning up various messes left by previous administrations, he's trying to address the fact that officers in Riviera Beach have twice as many of their criminal cases dismissed by prosecutors than any other city in the county because of insufficient evidence, illegal searches, and poor record-keeping.
Most of Zedrick Barber's internal-affairs problems either date from the time when Walker was chief or are based on earlier incidents dredged up years later by the Walker administration. Walker has publicly denied he formulated a "hit list" of officers targeted for dismissal, including Barber. At any rate things came to a head on the evening of May 5, 1988, when, according to Sharpe, Barber threatened to kill his own police chief.
The reality of what happened is considerably murkier. The setting was a public hearing of the civil-service board, at which Walker's administration was demoting Barber from sergeant to patrolman. "At that time there were people being fired left and right; there was a clear vendetta against people [Walker] thought were not supportive of him," Brooks recalls.
In the audience were Barber's mother and father. By the end of the hearing, Barber's parents were irate.
"It appeared that he was trying to avoid a confrontation, you know, and help his mom and father not have a confrontation with the chief," says Joe Lockhart, then a Riviera sergeant.
As the police chief was leaving the hearing, he heard Barber say something to his mother. "A comment was made by Officer Barber about putting a bullet in his brain," Walker says. "At that time I took it to mean me."
Barber: "At that point I told her, 'Mama, you can't talk to him, OK, you can't talk to him.' And she said something else, whatever. And I said, 'Mama, he's going to end up getting a bullet put in his head anyway.'"
Walker confronted Barber and asked him to repeat the statement.
Barber: "I said, 'Sir, it is my opinion that if you continue to treat people the way you do, somebody's going to put a bullet in your head.'"
To this day Barber is unapologetic about this comment and denies he has a fundamental problem with authority. "Basically I'm an individual who demands respect for myself, and I hold true to the things that I believe in," he says. "I didn't take all the time to go to college and do all this extra course work to become a renegade -- I prepared myself to work within the system. But the system changed the rules. And, in the face of that, I'm not going to roll over and play dead."