A federal lawsuit filed Monday levels new racial profiling allegations against the San Jose Police Department.
The suit, filed by African-American couple Emmanuel Stephens and Jasmine Whitley, claims that Stephens and his two daughters were followed while driving before an officer drew his gun on the family outside their home. The only reason police targeted Stephens, according to the lawsuit, was because of his race.
San Jose police came under scrutiny earlier this year when a survey of traffic stops indicated that officers are more likely to treat African Americans and Latinos as potential suspects. Statistics collected last year showed that police detain black people at far higher rates than other groups—even though those stops rarely led to an arrest.
The same holds true on a national scale. A police-public contact survey by the U.S. Justice Department found that "relatively more black drivers (12.8 percent) than white (9.8 percent) and Hispanic (10.4 percent) drivers were pulled over in a traffic stop during their most recent contact with police."
In other words, people really do get pulled over more for "driving while black."
Another report this year found that never in the history of SJPD has the agency upheld a citizen's complaint of racial bias. Recently retired Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell said that indicates the agency needs to change the way it reviews allegations of biased policing. Meanwhile, the department recently began field testing body cameras, which could help investigate future claims of profiling and excessive force.
Stephens filed a complaint with Cordell's office last year before taking the matter to court. His lawsuit describes what citywide traffic stop data confirms as a trend: that police are more likely to pull over, handcuff, search and curb-sit black and Latino drivers.
On Oct. 30, 2014, Stephens said he picked up his daughters Davian, 14, and Emani, 7, from school and took them to a mini-mart to get snacks. Officer Alexander Keller saw them at the store and followed the family to their Almaden Valley home.
After Stephens pulled up outside the home, Emani left the car to get the mail, while Davian went in through the house to open the garage door. Then, according to the lawsuit, Officer Keller leapt from his patrol car with his gun drawn.
“Put your hands up!” Officer Keller yelled at Stephens, according to the lawsuit. “Get back, get back.”
Stephens asked what was going on.
“Shut up before I tase you,” Keller allegedly responded.
Emani burst into tears and ran inside to get her mom, Whitley said, telling her that “police have a gun and they’re going to take daddy to jail.”
Whitley said she ran outside to see Keller shoving her husband into his patrol car. When she asked why he was being detained, Keller allegedly yelled at her to “get on the curb and shut up.”
Because of Keller’s behavior, Whitley said she told her daughter to go find a cellphone to record the incident. But Keller stopped the girl in her tracks, according to the case filing, telling her: “If you leave, I’m arresting you too and taking you to juvenile hall.”
Keller held the family for about 20 minutes before two other officers arrived, Stephens said. Whitley said Officer Kevin Cassidy told her that police had received a call about a suspicious black man with a purple backpack.
“We get calls about once a week about suspicious black people and have to check it out to see what’s going on,” Cassidy allegedly told her. “This happens a lot with black people over here.”
Meanwhile, Keller searched the family’s car, which turned up a container of medical marijuana prescribed to Whitley. Whitley showed police her ID and medical marijuana card, but Keller cited her for possession anyway.
Police have declined to comment on the incident, at least for the time being. San Jose Inside has requested more information about what happened that day, as well as the possession charge against Whitley.
Concerns about racial profiling in San Jose are set against a backdrop of national outrage over police violence against black men and women. On Wednesday, prosecutors charged a white Cincinnati policeman with murder for fatally shootingSamuel Dubose, an unarmed black man, during a routine traffic stop last week. The killing follows a succession of similar cases that have fueled riots in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore during the last year.
Another lawsuit accusing San Jose police of racial profiling was filed in May. The class-action civil rights case filed by Shauncey Burt, also a black man, claims San Jose police detained him and searched his car over minor traffic violations three times in five months. Only once was he given a traffic ticket.