Your Worst Nightmare

Welcome to Riviera Beach, home of slums, violent crime, a police department in turmoil, political hit lists, union busters, angry ex-wives, junkyard insurrections, and Zedrick Dwayne Barber, South Florida's most-investigated cop

The incident recalls another one on May 17, 1987, that has been used as further ammunition by those who would see Barber as a dangerous character.

On that day Barber walked out of a Winn-Dixie in neighboring Mangonia Park and saw three men about to get in a fight. He walked across the parking lot and told them to stop. Two of the men got in a car and drove away. (The third threw a brick at his departing cohorts.) Barber drove away, but, as he was doing so, he noticed that the Mangonia Park police had pulled over the two would-be combatants in their car. Barber stopped to watch in his Mazda RX-7.

A rookie cop named James Carr looked across the median and saw Barber, in civilian clothes, blocking traffic in the far lane, peering at him.

"I became unprofessional myself, and I told him to move the fucking car, loud enough where I think half the neighborhood could hear me," Carr would say in testimony later, adding: "It's the only accurate definition. I shouldn't have cursed at anybody."

Carr walked over to Barber's Mazda. A shouting match ensued. Barber tried to get out of his car. Carr shoved the door back on him, crushing or not crushing Barber's foot, according to whose account you believe. Soon the two cops were standing chest to chest, screaming, Carr having removed his nightstick from his belt. Things calmed down after Barber finally identified himself as a fellow officer and flashed his badge. But not before he said, in his own recollection: "If you hit me with that baton and I'm not under arrest, I'm going to blow your brains out."

A few minutes later, Carr's supervisor showed up. Everyone walked over to a nearby McDonald's, hashed things out, and apologized to one another. "We didn't kiss and make up, but we made up," Barber says. "It was thought to be over." Dean Combs, Carr's partner: "It was basically just a good verbal confrontation. They were both acting pretty unprofessional."

Many years later Barber's purported death-threats against Carr and Walker, coupled with another one against a superior officer, found their way to the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. On December 28, 1995, a hearing officer for the commission, after lengthy consideration of various witnesses' testimonies, recommended dismissal of all the charges against Barber, calling them, in essence, tempests in teapots. But of course, during the intervening years, Barber was the subject of three internal investigations regarding this incident, which remain on his record today.

For the past eight months, Barber has been on paid administrative leave in connection with yet another, even more bizarre, incident. Last year he was set upon by a police dog that left several serious bite wounds to his legs. The attack occurred during a botched arrest of a car thief one night in the roughest part of town. Barber says he believes the attack was intentional on the part of fellow officers.

A few weeks after the event, Barber received a call from one of his superior officers -- one whom he had previously been accused of threatening during a verbal altercation not witnessed by anyone else. The lieutenant wanted assistance with an escaped bull that had wandered away from its pasture on the far western fringes of the city.

On the way to the call, Barber says, he started feeling dizzy and nauseous. He had trouble facing up to the task of corralling the bull, and wound up in a verbal confrontation with his supervisor. Today he accuses the department of foot-dragging in its investigation of the incident -- until the investigation is concluded, Barber can't demand a hearing; until he gets back to work, he can't earn the substantial overtime pay on which many cops rely. A psychologist recently declared that Barber has suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder related to the dog attack but is now fit for duty.

Meanwhile he's staying busy coaching football and basketball and considering whether to join a class-action lawsuit his best friend has filed against the city and against the Police Benevolent Association. Both men were instrumental in leading a recent campaign to vote the union out of power and bring in a new union they believe will better represent them. The lawsuit alleges that the union and the city engaged in a pattern of harassment and intimidation against black officers, failed to adequately back them in disputes with the department, and helped undermine their promotion.

After living in West Palm Beach, Barber has moved back to Riviera to be nearer to his four children. He says he'll be back at work soon and has no plans for any career other than law enforcement. In five years, if he survives them, Barber will be eligible for retirement. He says other departments have declined to hire him based on a reputation for trouble that precedes him everywhere.

"Basically I've dared to ask the question, 'What about us?'" Barber says. "When Italian-Americans stick up for themselves, they're Italian patriots. When Jewish-Americans rally to their own interests, they're Jewish patriots. But for some reason, we're militant or antiauthoritarian or stubborn, we're everything but positive when we stand up for ourselves."

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