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Santa Monica Police Chief Defends Officers Against New Claim of Racial Profiling

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By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

November 20, 2015 -- Santa Monica police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks defended her department Wednesday after a Black resident accused officers of racial profiling in a story that has garnered national attention.

Saying her officers followed policy and procedures, Seabrooks' lengthy response to resident Fay Wells' published accusations in the Washington Post included a tape recording made by an officer during the September 6 police response to Wells' apartment, an encounter the African-American woman said left her emotionally traumatized.

Defending her officers' actions Wednesday, Seabrooks said she could personally relate to Wells, but added the officers that night were responding to a high-risk 9-1-1 call loaded with uncertainties.

“As a black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how this experience has made her feel,” Seabrooks said in a statement. “On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department's response and the need for that response.”

In an opinion piece in Tuesday's Post, Wells recounted how an incident that began that night when she mistakenly locked herself out of her Santa Monica apartment ended with two police officers ordering her out of her home at gunpoint. The story was quickly picked up by national news media, including the New York Times.

“A few hours and a visit from a locksmith later, I was inside my apartment and slipping off my shoes when I heard a man’s voice and what sounded like a small dog whimpering outside, near my front window,” Wells wrote.

“I imagined a loiterer and opened the door to move him along. I was surprised to see a large dog halfway up the staircase to my door,” Wells wrote.

After closing the door, Wells said she stepped over toward her window “and asked loudly what was going on.”

“Peering through my blinds, I saw a gun,” she said. “I stepped back and heard: 'Come outside with your hands up.' I thought, 'This man has a gun and will kill me if I don't come outside.”

With her hands raised, Wells said she came outside and was met by “an army” of Santa Monica police, counting 19 officers. On Wednesday Seabrooks said that 17 officers responded.

Wells said police refused to tell her what was going on. She offered to provide her identification and the receipt from the locksmith. Officers instead entered her apartment after she explicitly told them not to.

“It didn’t matter that I went to Duke, that I have an MBA from Dartmouth, that I’m a vice president of strategy at a multinational corporation,” Wells wrote.

“What mattered was that I was a woman of color trying to get into her apartment -- in an almost entirely white apartment complex in a mostly white city -- and a white man who lived in another building called the cops because he’d never seen me before.”

The incident recalls allegations related to The Lookout in May by “Beverly,” an African-American woman, who recounted being repeatedly stopped and questioned by Santa Monica police while walking through her mostly white neighborhood.

She later learned that neighbors had been reporting a rash of home burglaries involving a “petite African-American woman.”

“I had become that 'suspicious petite African-American woman,’” said Beverly. “I mean, that was me!” (“African-American Santa Monica Resident Tells Of Repeated Stops By Police,” May 21, 2015).

The stops only ended after Beverly provided an SMPD administrator with her information to pass on to patrol officers.

While Beverly described the stops more as “annoyances” and said she understood where police were coming from, Wells said her experience has left her unable to sleep and fearful of police in general.

“I have nightmares of being beaten by white men as they call me the n-word,” Wells said.

While the SMPD has enacted a number of reforms since Seabrooks took over in 2012, several incidents of alleged racial profiling have cropped up this year, prompting local NAACP officials to call on the chief earlier this year to ensure that her department’s goals on diversity and equal justice are being practiced in the field by rank and file officers.

“We don’t want to throw the Santa Monica Police Department under the bus; we just want to make sure they don’t throw any more citizens under the bus,” NAACP Santa Monica-Venice Branch President Darrell Goode told The Lookout in May (“Santa Monica Officials and Residents to Discuss Black Man's Alleged Rough Arrest,” May 19, 2015).

Goode's said he was concerned about the alleged rough arrest in April of Santa Monica resident Justin Palmer, who said police handcuffed him then slammed him to the ground as he was charging his car at the Virginia Park charging station.

Police said officers informed Palmer the park was closed, but he refused their orders to leave, refused to show his ID, became belligerent and had to be physically subdued.

Santa Monica's City Attorney, however, declined to pursue the matter. Palmer subsequently sued the City.

On Wednesday, the SMPD released a tape of the call to Wells' apartment. It begins after officers no longer have guns trained on her.

On the recording, she can be heard taking officers to task for pointing their weapons at her. She also tells officers she had been locked out and had called a locksmith.

Officers are heard trying to reassure and calm her.

“We got a call that someone was using tools to break into an apartment,” an officer says.

A few minutes later, Wells questions why five officers have started entering her apartment.

“It doesn't matter, even though I said I don't want people in my apartment?”

“We have reason to enter,” an officer says.

“What was the reason? I've asked at least five times.”

Officers had responded to a 9-1-1 call of a burglary in progress that came in at 11:16 p.m. that night, said Seabrooks, a 34-year police veteran.

“It was reported that three subjects, two women and a man, were breaking into an apartment. The subjects were described as 'a Latino male wearing a dark hat and dark shirt and two girls, possibly Hispanic, wearing dark clothing.'”

Two supervisors and 15 officers responded, she said.

“Based on the information provided by the 9-1-1 caller, in smaller communities, like Santa Monica, a response of this type is not uncommon,” said Seabrooks.

Seabrooks said that following standard procedure, two tactically trained officer approached the possible burglary in progress first, with guns drawn, while “other officers remained in the general area, away from the apartment, setting up containment, restricting pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and otherwise preparing for the worst while likely hoping for the best.”

On the recording, an officer speaking Spanish can be heard on a loud speaker warning residents to stay inside.

Wells was detained and questioned while police investigated the scene, Seabrooks said.

“When the scene was stabilized and the officers learned that Ms. Wells was, in fact, the apartment resident, two police supervisors and two police officers, including the K-9 handler, spent considerable time explaining what brought the police to Ms. Wells' door,” said Seabrooks.

“We were making an effort to help her understand what happened. Even the neighbor who called 9-1-1 came over and tried to explain why he called. Unfortunately, none of these efforts worked.”

Seabrooks said she believes the entire incident was a matter of perspective, adding that she ordered the tape recording released so the public could draw its own conclusions.

“From my perspective, the 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary. Put yourself in his place,” said Seabrooks.

“Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department's response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers' shoes.”

Instead, Seabrooks said she hoped the incident would serve as “an opportunity for all facets of our community and this Police Department to continue to work together, to engage in on-going conversations about the realities and myths of the protective function inherent in policing, and to emphasize the importance of community, particularly in terms of knowing one's neighbors.”

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