Nearly all the people arrested by a Beverly Hills police taskforce over the past year were Black, according to a new lawsuit which alleges egregious racial profiling in the wealthy California city.
The complaint, filed Tuesday by the prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, alleges that out of 106 people arrested by a Beverly Hills police “safe streets” taskforce, 105 were Black and one was a dark-skinned Latino person. Between March 2020 and July 2021, the unit unjustly stopped and arrested Black civilians who were roller skating, scootering, driving and jaywalking a few feet outside the crosswalk, the suit said.
The unit, also known as the Rodeo Drive taskforce, was set up last year in response to “a significant increase in calls for service in our business community”, according to the city, which is one of the richest municipalities in the US and less than 2% Black.
The plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed as a class action, are Jasmine Williams and Khalil White, a couple on vacation in Beverly Hills last September. They had been riding a scooter when police detained them “without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause”, lawyers wrote, saying officers demanded their IDs to run their names through a criminal database even though they hadn’t committed a crime.
The couple “peacefully” objected to the officers “abusing their police powers” and were subsequently handcuffed and arrested on “multiple fabricated charges”, the complaint said, adding that prosecutors later dropped the charges.
The suit also cited a 2 October 2020 incident when the unit stopped Salehe Bembury, who was then vice-president of men’s footwear at Versace and was holding a Versace shopping bag.
Body camera footage from that incident shows officers followed him and stopped him for jaywalking, with one saying, “How come you did that? You didn’t want to wait for the light?” The officers immediately asked for his ID, asked if he had weapons on him and then proceeded to pat him down and search him.
“What’s unfortunate is I literally designed the shoes that are in this bag, and I’m being … searched,” Bembury said to the officers, after repeatedly making clear that he was complying and that the officers were making him nervous. When he got his phone out to record, one officer tried to discourage him from filming, saying, “Right now, you’re being detained.” The officers later released him. Bembury posted footage of the interaction on Instagram.
The suit cited another incident in October during which officers stopped a Black driver and Black passenger without cause and eventually let them go without a citation.
The suit is against the police department and captain Scott Dowling, who led the force and “directed his subordinates to seize, interrogate, use force, falsely arrest, and maliciously prosecute any African Americans who traveled on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills”, lawyers wrote in the complaint, which the local news site LAist published on Wednesday.
“That day was very terrifying,” Williams, a nurse, said in a press conference, Spectrum News reported. “I don’t want this to keep happening to anyone, it’s not right.”
The city defended the taskforce on Wednesday, claiming the unit was set up in response to merchants’ complaints about “burglaries, shoplifting, pedestrian and vehicle code violations, street gambling, public intoxication, marijuana smoking and more”. The unit recovered illegal firearms and uncovered unemployment fraud cases, the city said in a statement. Dowling could not be reached.
The city also claimed that Williams and White had been illegally riding scooters on the sidewalk and had “provided false information” to an officer, but their lawyer said that claim was false, which was why charges were dropped.
The city has not disputed the arrest data included in the lawsuit and did not respond to questions about the figures. A spokesman said the task force was no longer in operation.
Bradley Gage, a local attorney also representing the couple, said it was wrong for the city to celebrate the work of the unit and ignore the extreme racial disparities in arrests: “These numbers are outrageous … and they are trying to justify it with a racial stereotype that Black people commit crimes.”