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A Black History Month-themed police car in Miami draws criticism

The Black History Month-themed patrol car was unveiled Thursday in front of the city's Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum, which honors the first generation of Black law enforcement in Miami.
Miami Police Department
The Black History Month-themed patrol car was unveiled Thursday in front of the city's Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum, which honors the first generation of Black law enforcement in Miami.

When Miami officials unveiled a special police car in honor of Black History Month, it was met with cheers and a loud applause. But the fanfare proved to not last long.

The newly designed cruiser has been under criticism since its debut on Thursday, with critics calling it tone deaf and ill-timed in light of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by police officers in Memphis, Tenn., last month. Others described it as an empty gesture attempting to minimize the struggles of the Black community.

"The Miami police car misses the mark on celebrating Black history by highlighting the wrong continent," Florida state Rep. Dotie Joseph, who serves parts of Miami, told NPR.

The cruiser was made public — along with a Black History Month-themed badge — on Thursday in front of the city's Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum. A few days earlier, another patrol car designed to celebrate Black history was under backlash in Columbus, Ohio.

In Miami, it's not the first time that law enforcement has created a themed cruiser. There have been special patrol cars made for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Autism Awareness and Hispanic Heritage Month.

"In keeping with the tradition, we've had a lot of officers and members come up to us and say 'Hey how come we don't have one for Black History," ' Miami Police Sgt. Stanley Jean-Poix said on a panel Friday in response to the criticism.

He added that no tax dollars went into funding the cruiser and instead, it was paid for by the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association.

Artist says the cruiser design was about unity and paying homage to Africa

Unlike the typical Miami police car, which is white and blue in color, this special edition is coated black with red, yellow and green stripes — colors commonly used to represent pan-African solidarity.

The vehicle is also embellished with four raised fists, an outline of the African continent and the words "Miami Police Supports Black History Month."

Lavish N Looney (Lump), the Miami-based artist who created the special design for the patrol car, said that unity and paying homage to Africa were major themes in the artwork. He said he went through several designs before a version was finalized, adding that earlier drafts included images of Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama.

Lump said he stands by the police car despite some of the backlash it received.

"Two things can exist at one time," Lump told NPR. "There could be still more work done between the police department and civilians while police officers and civilians come together to celebrate Black history."

Lump said he grew up in a community where people were "not fans of the police," so he understands patrol cars can be intimidating. His hope is that this cruiser will be more approachable to community members.

Critics accuse the police department of overlooking real issues that matter to the Black community

Still, some found the city's effort disingenuous, arguing that it overlooks real issues facing the Black community, like the state banning an African American studies Advanced Placement course in high schools.

"As regrettable as that blunder may be, the Black community has bigger fish to fry," Joseph, the state lawmaker, said. "If any elected official professes to be a 'friend' of any Black person or the Black community in general, then now is not the time to remain silent."

Others on social media noted that the city has been silent on the death of Antwon Cooper, who was shot by Miami police in March. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said it will not press charges against the officer involved in the shooting.

Patrol car was designed to commemorate Miami's first Black police officers during segregation

Miami police officials said the cruiser had a particular message: It was to honor the city's first Black officers, some of whom attended the unveiling this week.

"This is our way of honoring specifically the first five officers that in 1944 suffered injustice, prejudice, resistance and still answered the call," Miami Police Chief Manny Morales said on Friday.

Miami did not hire Black police officers until 1944. The first generation of Black police officers worked in a separate station house, which included a courtroom specifically for Black judges.

At the time, Black officers were only allowed to arrest Black civilians and had no authority over white residents. It wasn't until 1963 that Black law enforcement were finally integrated into the city's main police headquarters and the precinct was abolished and later turned into a commemorative museum.

Lt. Ramon Carr said he understood some of the criticism around timing, but defended the intentions of behind the themed cruiser.

"This had nothing to do with being disrespectful, being disgraceful. This was something like a source of pride for us, and it still is," Carr said.

City Commissioner Christine King, who represents the district where the vehicle was unveiled, told NPR that she believes the car was designed in good faith, adding that it was in the works for over a year.

"The intent is to honor and respect our black police officers and their service. However, I understand that our country is in mourning and the unveiling is ill-timed," King said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 4, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story mistakenly described the colors of police cars for the city of Miami. The cars are painted blue and white, not white, green and yellow, which are the colors of police cars for Miami-Dade County.
Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.