Judge’s Suit Accuses Police of Racial Profiling


A Virginia state judge says Los Angeles police officers ordered her out of a car at gunpoint during a traffic stop in Venice this summer, then handcuffed her and forced her to lie face down on the hot asphalt for half an hour--only because she is black.

Judge Alotha C. Willis, a former prosecutor who sits on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Portsmouth, Va., made the charges in connection with a civil rights lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Los Angeles.

Willis’ husband, identified as W. Person, a civilian procurement official with the Navy, and a friend, Los Angeles schoolteacher S.W. Crayton, made the same allegations in companion suits. Both are also African Americans.


Their lawyer, Stephen Yagman, said police told them they were stopped in broad daylight July 3 because the officers thought the license plate on Crayton’s Volvo belonged to another car. It did not.

“A white person would have been treated differently, better and with more respect,” the three said in their lawsuits, which also charge that Los Angeles Police Department officers are known for taking “unjustified negative action against black persons.”

A spokesman for Chief Bernard C. Parks said Monday that the department would have no comment because the episode is the subject of a lawsuit. Willis and Person could not be reached, and Crayton declined to discuss the case.

Yagman said that after being freed without an apology, the judge, her husband and Crayton drove downtown to Parker Center headquarters and tried to file a complaint against the officers involved in the stop.

“They were blown off. No one would take the complaint,” Yagman said.

Months later, Willis told Portsmouth, Va., Police Chief Leonard Cooke about the incident.

“He was so outraged by what he heard that he called Parks,” Yagman said. An aide to Cooke said the chief tried to “facilitate communications” between Parks and the judge.

Parks then phoned Willis, but Yagman said the Los Angeles chief refused to apologize for the officers’ conduct or investigate further.


“After receiving no satisfaction or an apology, the judge decided to file suit, as did her husband and friend in whose car she was riding,” Yagman said.

The lawsuits, which seek unspecified general and punitive damages, name as defendants LAPD Sgt. Thomas Burris, Officers William Hallet and Sheldon Nicholson and 15 unidentified officers, as well as Parks and members of the Police Commission.

Civil rights lawyers in California and across the country have long contended that police agencies unfairly target African Americans and Latinos for “DWB,” an acronym for “driving while black” or “driving while brown.”

Gov. Gray Davis recently vetoed legislation that would have required all law enforcement agencies to collect data on traffic stops involving minority drivers. Instead, he asked that local jurisdictions decide for themselves.

As a result, the Los Angeles City Council asked Parks in October to undertake such a study. An aide to Parks said the chief is reviewing the council’s request, but has not made any commitment.

Thirty-four other cities and counties in the state have agreed to study the issue, according to the governor’s office.