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African-American Santa Monica Resident Tells of Repeated Stops by Police

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

May 21, 2015 -- Beverly, an African-American woman in her mid-60s, says she has been stopped twice by Santa Monica police while walking around the neighborhood where she has lived for nearly two decades.

Once while walking home, a private security guard followed her for several blocks in his patrol car until she got to her front door, apparently for no reason, she said.

But for Beverly, an administrator at a trade association who asked that her real name be withheld for fear its publication might hurt her professional and private life, the stops by local police felt more like troublesome annoyances than intentional harassment, she said.

“I really believe that most of the police officers out there are there to protect and to serve,” she said. “It’s a hard job, I understand that. Every time someone hits 9-1-1, the police are there, right away, and most of the time they're dealing with people that hate them.”

Even so, over the years Beverly has developed her own personal survival guide, an internal rule book of does and don'ts she instinctively turns to when dealing with an officer of the law.

“It’s just things you hear about from people’s experiences, like you don’t go reaching into your purse unless you’re specifically asked to,” she said. “And I’m always polite. If they ask for my ID, I say, ‘Yes, sir. Here you are, sir.”’

As City officials prepare to meet Thursday with residents over allegations that Santa Monica police used excessive force while arresting an African-American man at a local park last month, complex questions about racial profiling, diversity and equal treatment -- issues that many in the City believed had been resolved in recent years -- are once again rising to the surface.

More than a decade ago, the SMPD faced charges of racial discrimination from rank-and-file black and Latino officers who claimed they were routinely passed over for promotions.

In the early 1990s, a court found that a Santa Monica officer violated the civil rights of two African-American men he had pulled over at gunpoint, according to court records.

In a similar case from 1996, two SMPD officers allegedly looking for robbery suspects pulled over two black men, ordered them out of their car at gunpoint and placed them in separate patrol cars while checking out their stories, according to a 1999 ACLU report, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation’s Highways.”

“The men filed suit against the officers and the court found that neither man fit the description of the robbers and that the robbery had not even occurred in Santa Monica,” the report said.

Since then, the City has hired Jacqueline Seabrooks, an African American woman, as its police chief in 2012. Last week, City spokesperson Debbie Lee reiterated the SMPD’s commitment “to constitutional and values-based community policing.”

“The City of Santa Monica and its Police Department are committed to fostering long term relationships with our diverse community,” Lee said in announcing Thursday’s meeting between Seabrooks, Interim City Manager Elaine Polachek and residents.

A RAND Corp study that analyzed 2000 U.S. Census data showed that, in fact, Santa Monica is rapidly losing the little diversity it has, with its black and Hispanic populations experiencing significant declines (“White, Single and Upwardly Mobile: A Profile of the City,” June 11, 2003).

Earlier this month, Santa Monica resident Justin Palmer filed an excessive force claim against the City, the Santa Monica Police Department and the two officers involved in his arrest at Virginia Park on April 21.

Palmer claims an officer first handcuffed him then swept him off his feet causing him to land on the side of his head. A second officer then pepper-sprayed Palmer in the eyes while he was on the ground, Palmer claimed.

Lee said the City Attorney’s Office is reviewing the claim. Palmer’s attorney, Justin Sanders, has said he intends to sue on Palmer’s behalf (“Attorney Says Claim Against City Forthcoming In Client’s Rough Arrest,” May 6, 2015).

According to the official account by the SMPD, officers placed Palmer under arrest after he refused to show his identification. Department spokesman Sgt. Rudy Camarena said Palmer “actively resisted” and that the officers acted within Department policies and use-of-force guidelines.

But Local NAACP Branch President Darrell Goode said earlier this week he wants to know why police apparently singled out the 36-year-old father of four and asked him to leave when others also were in Virginia Park at the time.

“What was the cause? What was the reasonable suspicion that was raised for him to be slammed to the ground and then paper-sprayed, especially since Mr. Palmer only weighs about 106 pounds?” said Goode. “Someone needs to explain that one to me.” (“Santa Monica Officials and Residents To Discuss Black Man’s Alleged Rough Arrest,” May 19, 2015).

For Beverly, the Palmer case illustrates why she uses extra care when dealing with police.

“For me, it’s a practical matter,” said Beverly. “This guy might be wearing a uniform, but you have no idea what’s going on in that man’s head. You don’t’ know what his state of mind might be. He may be going through a divorce, who knows?

“The bottom line is, he’s got a gun.”

Beverly said the first time she was stopped by Santa Monica police was about two years ago, around the time the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida was making national headiness.

She was returning from a walk. It was a pleasant late morning, around 11 a.m., and she was nearing her block, walking in a quiet area of single-family homes on Stanford just north of Wilshire.

A Santa Monica Police Department patrol car pulled up alongside her, she said.

When the officer asked what she was doing in the neighborhood, her internal survival guide kicked in, said Beverly

“Now, what I wanted to say was, ‘What the --- are YOU doing in this neighborhood, instead of Simi Valley, where you probably live? This is MY Neighborhood.’”

She paused and drew an imaginary word balloon over her head with one finger.

“That's what I said to myself, inside my head. But to the officer I said, politely, ‘Sir, I live here, this is my neighborhood.’”

A series of questions followed, said Beverly. Police asked for identification; she'd left her wallet at home.

“I told them I can give you my address, my driver's license, my social security number, by heart. I have them all memorized,” said Beverly.

Then another cop car showed up, she said. Then a third cruiser drove up and parked. People began looking out their windows at the growing scene.

By now an officer had explained that police were responding to a resident’s report of someone casing houses along the block. A description of a “petite African-American woman” peering into windows fit her, the officer informed her.

“I said, ‘Yes, sir. I was walking along the street, but I can assure you I never left the sidewalk and I certainly was not peeking into anyone's windows.’”

All the while, she said, she kept eye contact with the officer -- another of her rules. Finally, after checking out her story, the officer apologized and let Beverly continue on with her day.

She was walking near 26th Street a few weeks later when it happened again, said Beverly. Once again police explained her similarity to a suspicious-acting “petite African-American woman” reported in the neighborhood then let her go after a round of questions and an ID check, she said.

Later, she spoke with an administrator at the SMPD and learned that police were responding to a rash of recent burglaries in the area in which a team of thieves would first send an inconspicuous-looking person to canvas a neighborhood for potential targets.

Local Neighborhood Watch groups had been asked to report any suspicious-looking people, said Beverly. Whenever she went out for a walk, residents were reporting her as “suspicious,” she said.

“I had become that 'suspicious petite African-American woman,’” said Beverly. “I mean, that was me!”

The stops only ended after Beverly provided the SMPD administrator with her information. But it wasn’t her last encounter with a police officer.

A few weeks after her last detention by Santa Monica police, she was driving home late at night in a friend’s SUV when a Los Angeles Police Department officer pulled her over in an exclusive neighborhood, said Beverly. Immediately, the officer asked what she was doing there, she said.

“He was shining his flashlight in my eyes, trying to see if my pupils were dilated. He said, ‘Have you been drinking or smoking anything tonight?’ I said, politely, ‘No, sir, I have not been drinking or smoking anything.’”

A twinge of fear momentarily gripped her. It was three in the morning, and she was alone behind the wheel on a dark street. She remembered her most important rule: Do nothing provocative.

“I knew he was a police officer,” said Beverly. “But right there, at that particular instant, to me he was just a man with a gun.”

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