"Hello, Fort Lauderdale police department, I'd like to report a theft.... Yeah, someone stole some property of ours valued at $175.... "
"It was stolen from 1300 W. Broward, you know, the police department.... "
"No I'm not kidding. It's a news rack, the kind that holds free newspapers. It was probably taken by an employee who works there." Pause.
We thought this might give them pause.
We really don't want to make a federal case out of this. But we will. It seems the Fort Lauderdale police department has a rather sketchy understanding of the laws that govern the city and an ignorance of the Constitution in regards to the First Amendment and the rights of a free press. The department and a couple of employees also need to be spanked by Undercurrents for stealing New Times property.
Last week a police department employee, Jane Serio, called this newspaper and demanded that we remove our newspaper rack from the front of the police building. The cop shop sits on public property, and it's used by the public. The city code allows us to place a rack on public right of way as long as we aren't blocking access, and we weren't.
But the department doesn't seem to care about its own laws in regard to rack placement (see city ordinance C-97-27) because it's launched a crackdown on clutter right outside its front door. Serio claims homeless people who hang out around the police station defecate behind the racks and sometimes use the newspaper to sleep under! "So we're taking the free-paper racks out," Serio declared. Oh, so the daily papers that charge money can stay? "Yes, we decided to retain them." Now that doesn't sound fair. "I'm not going to argue with you," was her response. The concept of free speech must threaten her.
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So the police with their badges, guns, and immense amounts of authority have no way of preventing problems outside their own front door, other than to arbitrarily seize property that has a constitutional right to be there?
We suspect it may be a punitive move since we sometimes write stories they don't like. But we haven't violated city regulations regarding racks in public places, and the police don't enforce those regs anyway. If the code enforcement people want to remove a rack, they send us a certified letter, and we have seven days to respond. But again, a concept such as due process is hard to grasp for some police department employees.
So last Friday the rack disappeared and our call to Serio's supervisor, Lois Mauer in supplies and maintenance, went unanswered. We at Undercurrents can't allow this thievery and willful disregard for the law to go unpunished, so we filed a police report alleging theft.
And besides, the paper gets good pickup there. We have readers who work at the police department (some are sources), and a few fans who get put in jail there on rare occasions.
The taking of our rack is illegal, and our lawyer, who's purported to be an expert on such things, says it's also a violation of our civil rights. Now it's time to talk with the police chief, and if that doesn't work we'll have some fun in court. Maybe Serio will want to talk about it then.
-- as told to Tom Walsh
Got a tip? Call 954-233-1581, fax 954-233-1571, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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