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Criminal Justice

A Lawsuit Alleges 105 Of 106 People Arrested By The Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive Task Force Were Black

A Black man with a mask around his chin and his hands behind his back speaks to a police officer with another officer in the background.
A screenshot of Beverly Hills police body cam footage shows Salehe Bembury, vice president of Sneakers and Men’s Footwear for Versace, being stopped by officers after he left the company’s store in Oct. 2020. He was not arrested.
(Courtesy Beverly Hills Police Dept.)
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A federal civil rights lawsuit claims the Beverly Hills Police Department has engaged in a practice of harassing Black people on and around Rodeo Drive. It also accuses one captain of a special task force with trying to keep Black people away from one of the world’s most famous luxury destinations.

The lawsuit alleges that all but one of 106 people arrested by the department’s “Rodeo Drive Task Force” were Black. The task force was shut down July 1 after operating for 16 months, according to the suit.

Plaintiffs' attorney Bradley Gage said he obtained the arrest numbers from a retired police captain. He did not say whether the numbers included all arrests by the task force.

In a statement addressing the lawsuit, Beverly Hills Police Chief Dominick Rivetti did not address whether the arrest statistics alleged in the suit are accurate. He also did not say whether the task force is still operating.

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One of the attorneys for lead plaintiffs is Benjamin Crump, who represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin. At a news conference held Wednesday outside Beverly Hills City Hall, Crump said that police discrimination of any kind must be taken seriously.

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Lawsuit Alleges Racial Discrimination By Beverly Hills Police

“If we let them get away with this, if we don’t hold them accountable," he asked, "will we have a George Floyd in Beverly Hills, California next?”

In his statement, Chief Rivetti said his department is committed to enforcing the law “regardless of race” and that it takes concerns regarding officer conduct “very seriously."

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Rivetti called the task force’s work a successful response to a “significant increase” in crime in the city’s business district during the pandemic and in the wake of civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd.

“As a result of the newly created team, in a span of just five weeks, we recovered 13 loaded firearms from individuals on Rodeo Drive,” Rivetti said. “This is unprecedented in the history of Beverly Hills.”

The captain who ran the task force, identified in the lawsuit as Scott Dowling, is leaving the department, a police spokesman told LAist. He announced his retirement shortly after attorneys filed a complaint in May. That complaint was a precursor to the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Beverly Hills Assistant Police Chief Marc Coopwood abruptly announced his resignation. It’s not clear whether it was related to the lawsuit. A post on the police department's Facebook page says Coopwood was "resigning from the City on October 1st to pursue other opportunities in the private sector."

Gage said of the department: “There is something terribly wrong here."

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BEVERLY HILLS LAWSUIT
In this photo from Nov. 3, 2020, Rodeo Drive is closed for pedestrian and vehicular traffic and designer stores were boarded up in preparation for possible unrest on the night of 2020 election. A new civil rights lawsuit alleges Beverly Hills police harassed Black people in the famous shopping district.
(Emma McIntyre
/
Getty Images)

What The Lawsuit Says

The lawsuit was brought by Jasmine Williams, 30, and Khalil White, 24, who were stopped while riding a scooter together in September. They “peacefully noted” they had committed no crime and told the officers they were “abusing their powers,” according to the lawsuit. The officers arrested them on “multiple fabricated charges.”

The couple is from Philadelphia.

“We were enjoying ourselves on vacation,” Khalil said. “The arrest was traumatizing.” He said they were riding the scooter on the sidewalk, which is legal in their home city.

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Williams said she was arrested when she tried to get their hotel key from her bag, which her boyfriend was holding. “It was terrifying.”

The two were charged with two misdemeanors — riding a scooter on the sidewalk and resisting arrest. Khalil, who said he had visited Beverly Hill five times previously with no issues, spent the night in jail. Williams spent about eight hours behind bars.

“This is a big turnoff,” he said.

Rivetti said the two had been warned about the scooter violation earlier in the day and then “provided false information” when they were warned a second time. He did not elaborate. The charges against Williams and White were eventually dropped.

According to the lawsuit, Black people were arrested on Rodeo Drive for roller skating, jaywalking a few feet outside the crosswalk and merely driving in the city of Beverly Hills. The suit states: “The ‘crimes’ were fabricated, and if a white person engaged in such acts, he or she would not have been arrested.”

Williams and White are seeking class action status for their lawsuit, which says the class would consist of “all African American and other individuals with a dark complexion, who were considered ‘black,' that were arrested or detained without probable cause, suffered excessive force, or were prosecuted on false charges."

The lawsuit notes that in October of 2020, two officers stopped Salehe Bembury, Vice President of Sneakers and Men’s Footwear for Versace, after he left the company’s store. Body camera video shows them telling Bembury, who is Black, that they stopped him for jaywalking.

One officer asks: “What’s going on? How come you did that? You didn’t want to wait for the light?”

“Oh, I jaywalked I guess,” says Bembury, who is dressed in a tie-dye t-shirt and holding a Versace shopping bag that he later said contained shoes he designed.

The officer asks for his ID, then says, “I’m just going to make sure you don’t have any weapons” and searches Bembury — telling him to place his arms behind his back and to spread his feet.

Bembury posted a video on his Instagram account that he was searched for “being Black.” The officer can be heard saying, “You are making a completely different narrative.”

Who Is Being Sued

The lawsuit names the City of Beverly Hills, Captain Scott Dowling and two sergeants by their initials. It says Dowling led the task force and officers who worked on it were paid overtime.

“Dowling directed his subordinates to seize, interrogate, use force, falsely arrest, and maliciously prosecute African Americans who traveled to Rodeo Drive,” the lawsuit states. His intentions were to “keep out African Americans, who were deemed criminals.”

The lawsuit claims Dowling has previously been accused of racial discrimination against Black people, calling them “lazy” during a deposition in an earlier lawsuit.

We reached out to Dowling through the police department, but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.

The lawsuit accuses the city of providing “grossly inadequate training” to officers on lawful arrests and police ethics. It also says the city was aware but deliberately indifferent to evidence planting, falsified police reports, witness coercion and excessive use of force.

A History Of Issues

This is not the first time the police department and its leaders have faced allegations of racial discrimination.

Former chief Sandra Spagnoli resigned in April of last year after lawsuits accused her of making racist and anti-Semitic comments to colleagues.

The current lawsuit also points to the 2014 arrest of Black filmmaker and producer Charles Belk and to a 2015 YouTube video, produced by two officers, titled “Yellow Fever with Soul,” which made fun of African Americans and Asian Americans.

The video “used a racial stereotype of an African American man holding a chicken leg in his hand,” the lawsuit states. It says the department required the video be removed.

In 2000, the city settled a lawsuit that claimed police racially profiled Black people. As part of that settlement, the city created a Human Relations Commission to help address the problem.

The new lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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Updated September 1, 2021 at 2:53 PM PDT
This article updated with information from a news conference held late Wednesday morning and a statement released by Beverly Hills police.