Beverly Hills Off the Hook in Racial Profile Suit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After a five-year legal battle, seven African American men have agreed to drop a racial profiling suit that alleged the city of Beverly Hills violated their civil rights when local police stopped them for "driving while black."

As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to form a human relations commission that will hear citizen complaints about treatment by city personnel and will promote tolerance and ethnic diversity.

But Beverly Hills is not acknowledging that its police officers practiced racial profiling, city attorney Larry Wiener said. No monetary damages are being paid to the plaintiffs.

In their federal lawsuit, the seven men had sought damages and an injunction against the city prohibiting racial profiling.

Their attorneys said Wednesday that they dropped their suit partly because of a federal appeals court ruling late last year in an Arizona case that alleged racial profiling by border guards. The Latino motorists, contending discrimination, lost that case. The attorneys in the Beverly Hills case feared their suit would also ultimately lose in the same federal appeals court.

"There was a strong possibility that the court would decline to do anything," plaintiff attorney Michael Fitzgerald said.

In their suit, the plaintiffs, most of whom lived in Beverly Hills, claim they were each stopped numerous times by police while they were walking, biking or driving in the area at various times from 1993 to 1997.

Some were handcuffed and questioned; others were just pulled over and released.

One plaintiff, Patrick Earthly, was stopped on his way to a doctor's appointment and held at gunpoint by police officers who threatened to shoot him if he moved. As in nearly every case cited in the lawsuit, Earthly was released without a citation.

City officials expect the new human relations commission to be formed by year's end.

At her installation last March, Beverly Hills mayor Vicki Reynolds had suggested the formation of such a panel. And according to a city announcement, the establishment of the commission became part of last week's settlement agreement.

The conclusion to the case came days after Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that outlaws the practice of racial profiling and requires every law enforcement officer in California to receive expanded diversity training.

The author of the bill is state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), who filed his own racial profiling suit against Beverly Hills in 1998 after his car was stopped by police on his way to celebrate a primary election victory. His case was dismissed.

Murray said he considers the formation of a special commission "significant progress," because it forces the city to acknowledge there is a tolerance problem worth studying.

"In the end, all the police officers of Beverly Hills are going to have to get training and refresher courses," Murray said. "We did declare that it's against the law. Hopefully that makes a statement."

Wiener said that Beverly Hills officers already receive diversity training and that the new law will not dramatically change that program.

The group of African Americans filed suit in 1995 against the city of Beverly Hills, two council members, police Chief Marvin Iannone and Capt. Robert P. Curtis.

Ultimately, the cases against the individuals were dismissed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving only the city as the defendant.

Attorneys for the men decided their case would be best settled out of court after the federal appeals court ruled against a group of Latino motorists in December. They had alleged that Immigration and Naturalization Service border patrol officers who stopped them near Tucson had racially targeted them.

The court ruled that those incidents didn't prove that an entire race had been targeted, said the attorney in that case, Armand Selese.

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