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'We Don't Want It.' Black Residents In Fort Lauderdale Outraged Over New Forensic Center

Members of a predominantly Black area of Fort Lauderdale discuss plans for a new forensic lab next to the Atlantic Technical College Arthur Ashe Jr. campus Thursday evening
Caitie Switalski Muñoz
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WLRN
Members of a predominantly Black area of Fort Lauderdale discuss plans for a new forensic lab next to the Atlantic Technical College Arthur Ashe Jr. campus Thursday evening

Broward County is slated to open its new Forensic Science Center in 2026, with more than 130 staff members. The new build-out for the Medical Examiner and the Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab are unwelcome in a historically Black residential area of Fort Lauderdale.

This post has been updated.

A group of Fort Lauderdale residents braved a torrential downpour to grab a seat inside the Tyrone Bryant Branch Library, where Broward County leaders explained their plans for a new building.

The county is designing a new Forensic Science Center, slated to go up in a historically Black area of the city.

Broward County leaders are moving forward with the plans to relocate the Medical Examiner and the Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab to a new campus next to the Atlantic Technical College Arthur Ashe Jr. campus.

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During a town hall meeting last week, the county asked for feedback on the design, to which residents responded they don't want the building in their neighborhoods.

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John Morrison
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WLRN
The entrance to the Golden Heights neighborhood located more northwest in Fort Lauderdale. John Morrison first moved there in 1957.

Beverly Ingram told the room she has lived in the area for more than 60 years. She's also the outgoing association president for Golden Heights, one of the neighborhoods located next to where the new facility will be. The Lake Aire-Palm View neighborhood is also right there.

"And I say this — this is not a facility designed for a neighborhood, it's more so industrial. This is not for that," she said. "This is a real problem. There has been no decency whatsoever representing our community."

Residents Speak Out

The county has already incorporated feedback from the first presentations on the new building that will include the new Office of the Medical Examiner and Trauma Services— addressing concerns from the flow of traffic to the ventilation system that will be used. The discussions started in 2019.

Many of the residents in the room said they didn't know about these discussions at the time of the meeting.

They're angry that in a county of about 2 million residents, Broward's dead are being brought into their neighborhoods.

John Morrison first moved to Golden Heights in 1957. He worries about where his granddaughter plays.

"We were talking about death and to have all of that right across the street," said Morrison. "Who on the commission would want their families living next to a morgue or, you know, a forensic lab slash morgue? Nobody. But you know, they think that it's OK for us."
About 15,000 bodies get transported to the Broward Medical Examiner every year. Of those bodies, the office accepts a little more than 2,200 to investigate.

The Broward County Office of the Medical Examiner and Trauma Services has outgrown its current building in Dania Beach. The BSO Crime Lab portion of the building will relocate from the judicial complex downtown.

Its lab will have more space to store evidence and study bullets from crime scenes, analyze controlled substances, DNA, and fingerprints, according to county leaders.

County Administrator Bertha Henry emphasized the additional opportunities the facility can provide, such as classrooms for the community to train students for future, high-paying jobs.

"Our kids need to embrace science," she told the room. "And I would love for our kids to have access and to see that there are other opportunities."

Who on the commission would want their families living next to a morgue or, you know, a forensic lab slash morgue? Nobody. But you know, they think that it's OK for us.
John Morrison, Golden Heights resident

Attendees said what they really need is an urgent care center, a grocery store and a pharmacy — since many supermarkets and drugstores are a drive away.

"I mean, we have to drive, I don't know how long, to get to the nearest hospital," Morrison said. "There's nothing there. No shopping areas that are close to us. And then they wanted to drop this right in our neighborhoods when there's so many other things that we needed."

The county chose the site next to the Arthur Ashe campus because that property was available to them, Henry explained.

"We looked around for property that was actually closer to the courthouse. Nobody had any property that they wanted to sell," she said.

Henry said she understands where the concerns are coming from, but assured residents there was nothing to fear,

"There's a history of government putting the things in Black communities that you know, no other communities want," Henry said. "That's not something I would ever do. I am very conscious of that."

The Wingate Incinerator

Morrison remembers playing in a nearby dump growing up. He was in middle school at the time.

"We used to go out there and go through the garbage and looking for magazines and all kinds of anything that we could play with," he said. "We didn't have any business being out there, but, you know, kids."

Morrison is talking about the 60 acres on Northwest 31st Avenue that used to be the Wingate incinerator and landfill, which operated from 1954 to 1978.

"People, just the folks that were living right close to it were the ones that were getting sick," he said. "I mean, every household it seems like somebody was developing cancer."

Screen Shot 2021-09-09 at 12.38.03 PM.png
(Amy Beth Bennett, Sun Sentinel)
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The South Florida Sun Sentinel
Fences and signs ward off trespassers at the former Wingate incinerator site in Fort Lauderdale.

The Florida Department of Health analyzed the rates of diseases and cancer in people who lived nearby. The findings released in the early 2000s did not show higher instances of cancer.

In 1989, the US Environmental Protection Agency added this site to its Superfund National Priorities List. The city demolished the buildings and capped over the landfill where it found toxins in the soil and ash. The site is still on the Superfund list today.

The old incinerator, the one Morrison played in as a young teenager, is not far from where this new forensic science campus would go up.

County Administrator Henry told the residents in the room it was not a fair comparison.

"I understand the pain. I understand how you feel, but the facts as we see them and how we're dealing with them today, is [that] they're just not true," she said.

After the town hall ended, Henry said she expected to meet this lack of trust.

"It's gonna take some time. It's just a lot of history," she said. "It's just history and people have strong feelings about it, and I understand that."

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony was also at the meeting and spoke up when things started getting tense. He urged people to ask the county for concessions — not a different location.

"There's a history of government putting the things in Black communities that you know, no other communities want. That's not something I would ever do. I am very conscious of that."
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry

"This is the time to start finding ways to get concessions or things that can be introduced that this specific part of the community wants," said Tony. "Because it's going to be housed in Fort Lauderdale."

Broward County sent the following to WLRN when inquiring about the phase of the project:

"The Forensic Science Center is not scheduled to come before the County Commission unless there is a significant change in the project. The County Administrator can schedule a project update to the Board anytime and at her discretion. The Forensic Science Center is in the Design Development phase and the Site Plan Review process will start in the near future with the City of Fort Lauderdale."

'Who's Going To Be Held Accountable?'

After the town hall, in a rainy park, Morrison said he's not interested in the sheriff's idea of concessions.

"I just don't want that facility across the street from my home," he said, citing concerns about what this could do to his property values. "And that's the bottom line. I'm not really, really willing to negotiate anything."

The top leaders in Broward County are Black. And Morrison said, coming from Henry and Tony, he feels like that adds another layer of betrayal.

"It angers me that the fact that, you know, two Black folks would be so insensitive to what's going on," he said. "And the thing is, I mean, they're making all of these promises. When they retire, you know, more people, more politicians are going to be there. And when things go south, you know, who's going to be held accountable?"

Morrison was quiet for most of the town hall, then gave a speech near the end.

"I just don't think if the property had been available in Parkland or Weston or someplace else," he said. "I don't think those communities would want this facility either."

Broward County and the consulting group on the project, Garth Solutions, are spending the fall continuing to present to homeowners' associations in the area. The building is planned to open in 2026.

People can keep up with the project at this Broward County website.

— WLRN multimedia producer Alyssa Ramos contributed to this report.