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Black Actor's Account of Encounter with Santa Monica Police Rekindles Racial Profiling Debate
By Jorge Casuso
July 31, 2018 -- The issue of racial profiling by both Santa Monica residents and local law enforcement officers resurfaced this weekend when a black actor recounted a 2016 encounter with police at his Santa Monica home.
On Friday, “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” actor Ving Rhames said in an interview that two Santa Monica officers confronted him with guns inside his home two years ago after a neighbor reported a “large black man” breaking in.
The incident -- which was not publicized when it took place July 29, 2016 -- came after similar local encounters the previous year put the issue of racial profiling in the predominantly white beach community in the headlines.
In the case of Rhames, police said they received two calls at around 2 p.m. from neighbors reporting a possible residential burglary in the 800 block of 23rd Street.
"She was fearful," Lt. Saul Rodriguez, the Police Department spokesman, said of one of the callers. "You could hear two women in the background speaking low. They didn't want him to hear.
"We have to respond to this," Rodriguez said. "We can only go by what was provided."
Rhames, 59, recalled his encounter with police when he was asked about racism during an interview on The Clay Cane Show on Sirius XM Friday.
Rhames said he was watching television wearing only his basketball shorts when police instructed him to open his door with one hand.
“I open the door," he said, "there’s a red dot pointed at my face from a 9 mm, and they say, ‘Put up your hands!’"
Rhames said he kept his hands in the air and was escorted outside, where he was met by two other officers, a police captain and a police dog.
The incident ended when one officer recognized Rhames because their sons played basketball against each other in high school.
Rhames said he went with police to confront the neighbor who reported him but that she denied making the call.
Residents should always call police when they see what they consider to be suspicious behavior, Rodriguez said.
"We don't victimize the person that calls," he said. "We encourage" residents to call."
A statement issued on Facebook by the Police Department Saturday said the officers encountered Rhames at the front door and after recognizing him "the situation was quickly de-escalated with no use of force occurring."
The incident recalled one that took place ten months earlier on September 6, 2015 when police responded to a "high-risk 9-1-1 call" after Fay Wells, a black Santa Monica resident, locked herself out of her apartment.
The incident ended with two police officers ordering her at gunpoint to step outside, where she was met by 15 other police officers who had responded to the call.
Wells recounted the incident in a widely read opinion piece in the Washingtom Post that spurred a national debate.
Then Police Chief Seabrooks, who was Santa Monica's first black female chief, responded that the department had acted appropriately to a reported burglary (“Santa Monica Police Chief Defends Officers Against New Claim of Racial Profiling,” November 20, 2015).
“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 at the time.
It was the second high-profile incident that year involving racial profiling by police under Seabrooks' watch.
In April 2015, Justin Palmer complained police had used excessive force when he was arrested at an electric car charging station in a Santa Monica park.
A federal jury later sided with Palmer's claim (“Jury Awards $1.1 Million in Excessive Force Case Against Santa Monica Police,” September 7, 2016).
The incident led to a meeting between Seabrooks, NAACP leaders and residents about concerns of racial profiling by local police (“Santa Monica Police Chief Responds to Residents’ Racial Profiling Complaints,” June 1, 2015).
Santa Monica residents worried about crime also play a part in incidents involving racial profiling that often go unreported.
That was the case with an African-American woman in her mid-60s who shared her run-ins with police for a May 2015 article in the Lookout ("African-American Santa Monica Resident Tells of Repeated Stops by Police," May 21, 2015).
The resident, an administrator at a trade association, said she had been stopped twice by Santa Monica police while walking around the neighborhood where she has lived for nearly two decades. She was also followed by a security guard.
Neighbors had called police after local Neighborhood Watch groups were asked to report any suspicious-looking people, the woman said. Whenever she went out for a walk, residents were reporting her as “suspicious,” she said.
Police stress the importance of knowing one's neighbors.
Following the Rhames incident, SMPD launched a city-wide community program called “Meet Your Neighbors,” police said in Saturday's Facebook Post.
The program is designed to encourage residents to "step out of their comfort zones and get to know each other over coffee, ice cream or block party."
There have been at least a dozen gatherings since the program was initiated in January 2017, most of them within a six-month period, Rodriguez said.
"Many times people don't get out and talk to their neighbors anymore," he told the Lookout. Police will do "anything we can to encourage neighbors to know each other."
The Police Department will host its annual National Night Out on Tuesday August 7 from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. across from City Hall.
Held in cities across the nation, National Night Out "promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live," according to the campaign's website.
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