Beverly Hills accused of creating police task force that disproportionately arrested Black people
A Black couple have sued the city of Beverly Hills, alleging their arrest was part of a campaign by its police to arrest Black people for trivial reasons and at disproportionate rates.
The couple’s lawyers, Bradley Gage and Benjamin Crump, said the Beverly Hills police last year set up a task force — dubbed Operation Safe Streets and the Rodeo Drive Task Force — that arrested 106 people, 105 of whom were Black and one of whom was Latino. Gage said the sources of the arrest figures were unidentified retired Beverly Hills police officers who were appalled by the task force’s actions and so shared with him the alleged racial breakdown of who had been arrested.
The impetus for the task force, Gage said, was both the protests over the death of George Floyd and what Beverly Hills police believed were transactions at retail stores using suspected proceeds of unemployment benefit fraud. Gage described the Police Department’s approach to rooting out suspected fraud as, “Gee, that’s suspicious — Black people shopping in Beverly Hills.”
Gage and Crump, who has represented the families of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed by police, raised their allegations Wednesday on the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall. “There is something terribly wrong here,” Gage said, citing what he called the city’s legacy of biased policing.
Gage and Crump are seeking class-action status for their lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The only named plaintiffs are the couple, who were arrested on suspicion of riding scooters on a sidewalk and resisting arrest; it does not appear that Gage or Crump has identified the 104 other people who they contend were arrested.
In a statement, Police Chief Dominick Rivetti said his department created a “Rodeo Drive Team” in response to complaints by businesses and a rise in burglaries, shoplifting, “street gambling, public intoxication, marijuana smoking and more.” The team seized 13 firearms carried by people on Rodeo Drive, said Rivetti, who called this “unprecedented in the history of Beverly Hills.”
Beverly Hills is prosecuting 25 people arrested for alleged curfew violations even though L.A. County has declined to take such cases to court.
Rivetti said the Rodeo Drive unit rooted out fraudulently obtained state unemployment benefits, seizing $250,000 in cash and ill-gotten debit cards. Most of the people arrested by the unit were not California residents, Rivetti said, but they nonetheless possessed debit cards loaded with state funds.
The Times asked the Beverly Hills police for a total number and breakdown by race of the people arrested by the Rodeo Drive unit. Capt. Max Subin, a department spokesman, said officials were gathering the figures Wednesday and would provide them once they had finished.
Gage and Crump on Wednesday highlighted the experience of the Black couple, Khalil White and Jasmine Williams of Philadelphia, who said they were visiting Beverly Hills on vacation in September when they were stopped, arrested and eventually jailed by police.
As five officers handcuffed White, Williams said, she asked an officer for her purse to retrieve their hotel key. Two officers pushed her to a police car, handcuffed her and took her to jail, she said.
“I was scared,” Williams said. “I’ve never been to jail in my life.”
White, who said he was jailed overnight and forced to post a $25,000 bond, was charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court with resisting arrest and falsely identifying himself to police. Williams was charged with falsely identifying herself to police. The charges were dismissed in February, records show.
Crump and Gage alleged that White and Williams’ arrests were part of a campaign to target Black people in the city through its recently formed task force.
The Beverly Hills police “had made up their mind that this Black man was going to jail because this is Operation Safe Streets,” Crump said.
In his statement, Rivetti said police had warned White and Williams earlier the day of their arrest that it was illegal to ride a scooter on the sidewalk, without taking action against the couple. In their second encounter with police, White and Williams provided officers with false information, Rivetti said.
Beverly Hills Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli announced her retirement Saturday, ending a rocky tenure for the city’s first female top cop that was marked by more than 20 lawsuits or claims of misconduct.
“Our department’s practice is to contact and question individuals when we believe they may be involved in criminal activity or another violation of the law,” he said.
Beverly Hills officials faced criticism last summer for insisting on charging protesters with misdemeanor curfew violations; by comparison, prosecutors for the city and county of Los Angeles declined to charge similarly minor violations of curfews and dispersal orders.
In a summary of the Beverly Hills protests, a police sergeant wrote that for residents who survived the Holocaust and Iranian revolution, the demonstrations over Floyd’s death were “not merely an intrusion of their peace” but “a terrifying reminder of their past.”
The department’s previous chief, Sandra Spagnoli, retired in 2020, beset by allegations that she made racist comments and had sex with subordinates who were later promoted. Spagnoli denied the claims, which she said were raised by disgruntled employees, but the city paid out millions of dollars to settle many of the lawsuits. Gage, who represented several officers who sued Spagnoli, estimated at the time that the city paid about $8 million in settlements, attorney fees and other costs.
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