Charges of Police Racism Tear at Beverly Hills’ Image : Law enforcement: Suit renews contention that officers regularly harass blacks. Chief, residents deny allegation.
The mayor helps minorities develop businesses in South-Central Los Angeles. Another city leader spends her free time promoting affirmative action programs. Other civic boosters proudly declare their allegiance to noble causes such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Beverly Hills, citizens like to tout their liberal credentials. The predominantly white enclave, they say, is a tolerant haven for people of all colors.
But many African Americans see the city in a different light: They go out of their way to avoid Beverly Hills for fear of being stopped by police.
The difference in perception could lie in the fact that residents have long demanded an aggressive style of law enforcement, one that has prompted allegations of racism by segments of the black community over the years.
The issue resurfaced last month when six African Americans filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court alleging that police follow an unwritten policy of targeting black males and that city officials ignore the abuses.
Some African Americans say the case is just the latest example of the discrimination blacks have faced on the streets of the community, a sentiment shared by a former Beverly Hills mayor who is representing the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit.
Since 1990, blacks have filed five lawsuits and more than a dozen claims against Beverly Hills, alleging that police unjustifiably stop and harass minorities. In one case, a black motorist accused police of pointing a gun at his head during a traffic stop. Another man alleged that police ransacked his car in a vain search for drugs.
Police watchdog groups say that Beverly Hills is just one of many cities in Southern California where such misconduct occurs. But they say few other places have developed such an aggressive image.
“The reputation of Beverly Hills is that they keep minorities on the move,” said Hugh Manes, a founder of Police Watch, a Los Angeles-based organization that tracks complaints about police. “That’s been the sum and substance of their unspoken policy in the past.”
Police Chief Marvin Iannone denied that the 132-member Police Department, which has six black officers, singles out African Americans or anybody else. Iannone noted that several white celebrities, including Zsa Zsa Gabor and Johnny Carson, are among those who have been arrested during traffic stops in recent years.
The chief defended his department’s well-known proactive style of policing, in which officers scout for crime--patrolling alleys, stopping pedestrians after dark and pulling over motorists for broken tail lights and other infractions that might be ignored elsewhere.
But Iannone said his force also is committed to protecting individual liberties.
“We’re going to keep this community safe, but not at the expense of civil rights,” said Iannone, a former assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department. “We’re here to protect everybody.”
City officials insist that police critics exaggerate the issue.
City Manager Mark Scott points out that Beverly Hills has paid out just $26,500 in police misconduct cases since 1990, a fraction of the $3.8 million Los Angeles paid Rodney G. King alone as a result of his 1991 videotaped police beating.
The officials also question the assertion that blacks get stopped more frequently than whites. A partial analysis of traffic citations issued in 1994 showed that 69% of tickets went to white motorists while 12% went to blacks, and the rest to Hispanics and other groups.
Critics, however, maintain that the analysis fails to tell the whole story, since many traffic stops do not result in written citations.
Richard Hill, a black businessman from the Antelope Valley, is among those who say they have been stopped but never cited.
Hill, who recently joined the new lawsuit against the city, said in court papers that he was pulled over in July 1994 while heading to meet his wife for lunch at her office on Wilshire Boulevard. He alleges that police followed him into the parking garage beneath the office building, ordered him out of his car and frisked him, during which one officer “violently jerked” him by the groin.
“I said, ‘What the hell reason do you have to do me this way?’ ” recalled Hill, 52. “And he said, ‘That’s procedure.’ ”
Police said they stopped Hill because he matched the description of a suspect in a bank robbery that had occurred just minutes before. Police investigated Hill’s allegation that he was inappropriately grabbed and concluded in a letter to him that “there was no apparent misconduct on the part of the officer.”
Hill says he now avoids Beverly Hills whenever possible, forgoing lunches he once enjoyed with his wife. “It makes me nervous just to be in that area,” he said.
African American organizations say that stories such as Hill’s are all too common.
The Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has received about 75 complaints about Beverly Hills police over the last two years, said Billie Green, the group’s president.
She said that many African Americans, particularly young men, make a practice of skirting the city when they pass through the area.
“African Americans are not wanted in Beverly Hills,” Green said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of car you are driving. You’re just not welcome there.”
In the face of such criticism, community leaders have rallied behind their Police Department.
On the day the recent lawsuit was filed, more than a dozen of the city’s most prominent citizens went before the City Council to say they did not believe the accusations.
“No one is more committed to civil rights and constitutional principles than we are in Beverly Hills,” Ken Goldman, president of the city’s largest homeowner group, told the council. “The city’s record on human rights and human values is one to be envied, not tarnished.”
Some community members have suggested that the problem has more to do with African Americans who are pulled over and wrongly assume that police stopped them because of their race.
“I see white people stopped all the time and they’re not complaining about racism,” said Chuck Aronberg, a former mayor. “Blacks have a chip on their shoulder. [They] think bad things happen to them because they’re black.”
A strong and visible police presence has long been a priority in this city of nearly 33,000 people, which swells to more than 100,000 during business hours. Residents say they want a high-profile Police Department because the city’s image as home to the rich and famous attracts criminals.
“You’re talking about an affluent community that’s a target,” said Max Salter, a former mayor and an ACLU member. “You have to take all precautions.”
Responding to such community sentiments, city officials traditionally have reserved large chunks of their budgets for public safety. Beverly Hills spends more per resident on policing--$571--than any city in the state. By comparison, Los Angeles and Santa Monica spend $158 and $278, respectively.
Consequently, Beverly Hills has four police officers for every 1,000 residents, nearly double the number in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Such staffing in a city of just 5.6 square miles has led to an enviable three-minute response time for emergency calls.
“Most people don’t realize we have the resources in Beverly Hills to stop and talk to a lot of people,” said Lt. Frank Salcido, a department spokesman. “Our officers have a lot of time to go out and look for bad guys, to make traffic stops.”
Longtime residents say they appreciate the heavy police presence even when it means they, too, are pulled over and questioned.
“The police should stop anybody if they have reasonable suspicion,” said Donna Ellman Garber, a former mayor who recalled that she was stopped one night several years ago, before she joined the council. Garber said officers questioned her on a walk with her new dog because they did not recognize her as one of the area’s nightly strollers. The officers asked her where she lived and where she was headed, she recalled.
“I was an unknown . . . person walking the street,” Garber said. “I’m grateful for that level of attention. I don’t find that offensive.”
Jerry Lafayette, however, does find such stops offensive. Beverly Hills police have pulled him over more than 20 times in 18 months, he says.
One of the African Americans who recently sued the city, Lafayette says the frequent encounters with police have made him fearful in his own community.
“When I leave my house, I feel intimidated,” said Lafayette, 17, a student at Beverly Hills High School and co-captain of the school’s varsity football team. “I don’t want to be a victim like Rodney King.”
Lafayette and four other teen-age plaintiffs in the lawsuit live in Beverly Hills and attend local schools. They say friends from other cities often are reluctant to visit, fearing police stops.
For the families of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last month, there is a twist of irony. They moved to Beverly Hills seeking better schools and an escape from the gang violence that plagues so many campuses in Los Angeles.
“We never thought we would have to worry about the police,” said Ralph Jones, whose 15-year-old son, Moacir, accused officers earlier this year of detaining him and two friends for 45 minutes before releasing them. “We had heard about this happening to people who are not residents. But we were under the impression that, living here, you wouldn’t be subject to that type of treatment.”
In the suit, the African Americans have named as defendants the city, Mayor Allan Alexander, Councilwoman Vicki Reynolds, Chief Iannone and Police Capt. Robert Curtis.
The suit alleges that the police and officials have “engaged in a conscious policy of deliberate indifference” by allowing police harassment to go unchecked. It accuses Alexander and Reynolds, in particular, of disregarding appeals from residents on behalf of one alleged victim, Pat Earthly, a handyman at a local church.
Several members of the All Saints Episcopal Church wrote the city after an incident on Mother’s Day of this year in which police allegedly followed Earthly for several blocks into the church parking lot. There, an officer ordered Earthly onto the ground as parishioners looked on, according to court documents.
The church members raised questions after hearing from Earthly that he had been stopped eight times since he began working at the church in August 1993. The incidents included one in which, he says, police put a gun to his head, an allegation police deny.
Alexander, Iannone and the other officials bristle at the suggestion that they ignored the Earthly incident, or any other allegations of police misconduct.
Alexander and Reynolds said they asked City Manager Scott to look into the Earthly case. Scott said he met with the church’s rector, and he and Chief Iannone said they offered to speak to the All Saints congregation.
“The city of Beverly Hills takes great pride in its sensitivity to people’s needs,” Alexander said in a statement. “We . . . have worked hard to make Beverly Hills a great place to live, to work and to visit for all people.”
Meanwhile, the city’s attorney in the lawsuit, Skip Miller, insisted that the police had done nothing wrong in any of the cases, including the Earthly incident. He said that Internal Affairs investigators thoroughly probed each complaint and found that officers had “reasonable suspicion” to make the traffic stops.
Miller also said that investigators tried to meet with those families who requested further information but never heard back.
“The record is clear, there was intensive follow-up,” Miller said. “It’s not like the city and the Police Department put their heads in the sand. It was just the opposite of a whitewash.”
Nevertheless, attorney Robert K. Tanenbaum, a former Beverly Hills mayor who is representing the plaintiffs, is pushing ahead with the lawsuit, contending that he sees a Police Department out of control.
“This case is about people’s rights to walk the streets, to ride cars on public roadways without being terrorized, harassed or abused,” he said. “All we’re saying is, treat black folk like white folk.”
Tanenbaum has himself become a center of controversy.
Critics in the community question why he never raised concerns about police conduct during his eight years on the council. Tanenbaum replies that the issue was never brought to his attention. The detractors also are skeptical about Tanenbaum’s motivations, saying he has a personal vendetta against the department.
Indeed, police say Tanenbaum has been feuding with them for many years, partly because of an incident in 1992 involving actor Sylvester Stallone, who was accused of ramming his car into a photographer’s vehicle. At the time, then-Councilman Tanenbaum served as attorney for Stallone in the assault case being investigated by the police.
Police accused Tanenbaum of a conflict of interest and objected to his involvement. Last year, the powerful police union, whose endorsement is considered key to winning City Council elections, struck back: It endorsed Tanenbaum’s opponents, and he lost his reelection bid.
Tanenbaum, however, said he has no personal agenda and that he took the case because he has “zero tolerance for police corruption.”
As the city and Tanenbaum prepare their cases, both sides are pressing hard to sway public opinion.
Tanenbaum, who held a news conference last month when he announced the lawsuit, has gone on television talk shows to hammer at the Police Department. City officials, meanwhile, have hired a public relations expert to spin their message to the news media.
But many citizens are not waiting for the outcome of the publicity or for a court to rule on the lawsuit. They’ve already made up their minds.
“This is a time when every one of us must demonstrate our support for our city and our Police Department,” said Goldman of the homeowners association. “We believe in our police, and we as a community solidly support them.”