Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, August 27, 2002


Page 3


Jury Finds LAPD Did Not Racially Profile Black Judge in 1999 Stop


From Staff and Wire Service Reports


Federal jurors yesterday found police did not use excessive force or racially profile a black Virginia judge when officers made an arrest at gunpoint in Venice Beach in 1999.

“We’re pleased that a diverse jury confirmed what we thought: that this is not an example of racial profiling or excessive use of force,” said Senior Assistant City Attorney Cheryl Mason, chief of the civil liability management branch. “It’s certainly unfortunate because the plaintiffs were in fact innocent people having a nice afternoon, but the officers acted appropriately with what information was available to them at the time.”

Twelve jurors in U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder’s courtroom found that officers acted properly when they ordered three people, including Virginia Judge Alotha C. Willis, out of a car at gunpoint and forced them to lie face-down on a street while handcuffed.

Willis, a former prosecutor who has been on the bench in Portsmouth, Va., since 1995, sought unspecified damages for her treatment during the arrest.

But her attorney, Stephen Yagman, said he felt the jury had “made a mistake in its determination that there was no arrest” in the course of the incident.

“That mistake flows from an incorrect jury instruction on the definition of arrest,” he said.

Had the jury concluded that an arrest took place, Yagman argued, it would have opened the door to the consideration of whether police had sufficient cause to make the arrest and whether the plaintiffs’ rights were violated.

Yagman said he will appeal.

Yagman had argued that Willis, her husband Wayne Person, director of naval contracts for the Defense Department and friend Sheryl Crayton, an assistant principal at a Los Angeles-area middle school, were stopped solely because they are black.

He accused LAPD officials of fostering a “xenophobic” and “paramilitary” culture that permits racial profiling of black motorists.

The monthlong trial included testimony from former police chiefs Bernard Parks and Daryl F. Gates, current interim chief Martin Pomeroy, and members of the civilian Board of Police Commissioners in an attempt to show the department maintained a practice of tolerating racial profiling.

Most said they had no knowledge of any racial profiling incidents, which are banned under department policy.

Willis testified she and her husband were riding in a car driven by Crayton when they were pulled over by police about 2 p.m. on July 3, 1999. Willis said she saw four officers crouched behind their patrol car doors with guns pointed at her.

Officers said they did a “felony stop” after running the car’s license plates and discovering they didn’t match the Department of Motor Vehicle record for Crayton’s 1998 Volvo. As a result, they thought the car might have been stolen.

It was later learned that mismatched license plates were mistakenly mailed to Crayton by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The tactics and procedures for the high risk felony stop were within police policy,” said Mason, the assistant city attorney. “There was an unfortunate mistake with the switched license plates, but officers acted appropriately. The jury verdict in this case was consistent with both the facts and the law.”

Person told the jury during trial that he, his wife and Crayton, who was driving, were ordered from the vehicle at gunpoint, handcuffed and forced to lay on hot asphalt.

The 50-year-old Naval procurement officer also testified that one of the officers told him, “Shut up boy.” Assistant City Attorney Don Vincent argued Person did not mention the “boy” remark when the three visited police headquarters to make a complaint that day.

Crayton, an assistant school principal, testified that she was wearing shorts during the traffic stop, and that her skin felt like it was burning from the hot pavement.

She testified that she was handcuffed by an officer who applied a knee to her back, and that the officers did not answer her repeated questions about why she was stopped.

“They kept saying ‘Get on the ground’...I just wanted to know what I did,” said Crayton, who was taking her friends to lunch after a sightseeing stop at the Venice boardwalk when they were pulled over.

Parks said that DMV information has “a high degree of accuracy,” and that officers rely on it.

The former chief said the officers acted properly in taking precautions during the stop, including calling for backup and ordering the vehicle’s occupants to lie on the ground.

Parks testified that an order specifically prohibiting racial profiling was distributed to everyone in the department in August 2001, and that the department investigated the training officers receive in relation to high-risk stops following the plaintiffs’ complaint.

That investigation, Parks said, revealed no problems with the training, though one officer was disciplined for using profanity on the scene.

Parks also told the jury that when he took over the chief’s post in August 1997, he did not “have a sense” that racial profiling was a widespread problem.

The plaintiff’s attorney, however, contends his clients were victims of a longstanding but unwritten policy the LAPD has against “driving while black.”


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company