About this story: For this story, reporter Kate Bradshaw interviewed several young men of color about their experiences when stopped by Menlo Park police. She also interviewed Menlo Park Police Chief Bob Jonsen and Commander Dave Bertini. The Almanac plans to continue to cover this issue and wants to hear from you. At the bottom of this story is information on how to contact us.
By Kate Bradshaw | Almanac Staff Writer
In Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, a spate of home burglaries since September has put residents on edge, leading to an undercover police presence, an increase in calls to the police to investigate "suspicious" characters, and a number of recent arrests.
While some residents herald the arrests as an unequivocal win for the community, others point out how heightened police attention can affect innocent people, often people of color, who are stopped and detained by police.
The Almanac interviewed a number of people of color who have been stopped by Menlo Park police and asked them to talk about the experience and how it has affected them.
DeBraun and Jonathan
On Dec. 19, 2016, only a couple of hours before Menlo Park police arrested a pair of teenage burglary suspects, DeBraun Thomas, 27, and Jonathan Turner, 37, both African American, were catching up before the holidays. They were returning from lunch together, when Mr. Turner turned his car up a cul-de-sac in the Willows. Mr. Thomas had grown up in the Willows and was home to spend Christmas with his mother.
After turning left from Chester Street, where there is a stop sign, onto Menalto Avenue, an undercover police car pulled up and four officers stopped Mr. Turner for allegedly rolling through the stop sign. (Menlo Park police don't use dashboard video cameras, so there is no video of the car turning. They do use bodycams, but they are turned on in person-to-person contacts and capture only 30 seconds prior to their activation, according to Menlo Park Police Chief Bob Jonsen.)
Mr. Turner says he was under duress and doesn't know if he gave consent to have the car searched. Menlo Park Police Commander Dave Bertini said that police saw an open container of marijuana in the vehicle, which is against the law. Mr. Turner says he did have marijuana in the car, located under his seat inside an opaque white bag carrying the name of a medical marijuana delivery service. He presented a medical marijuana prescription card. The police also found an amber light, which Mr. Turner said he planned to use at the Boys & Girls Clubs as a promotion for a comic book he had written about a character he calls Pajama Man. Amber lights, Chief Jonsen said, trigger suspicion because they can be used to imitate police car lights.
Mr. Turner was required to sit on the curb while his car was searched, a painful position because he has multiple sclerosis. A sergeant repeatedly asked Mr. Turner why he was so nervous, he said.
While he was being detained in front of his childhood home, Mr. Thomas said, the police asked several times what the two men were doing in the neighborhood, and he was asked for a second form of ID after showing his driver's license.
Both men were shaken by the experience, in part because they had both been detained 10 years earlier in front of the same home for driving a type of car that was allegedly often used for burglaries. That time, the police had pulled guns on them.
After their most recent stop, the two men wanted to talk about their experiences. Mr. Thomas hosted a community organizing workshop at Cafe Zoe in the Willows.
"I can't tell you or explain how violating it is to be harassed by the police, knowing you didn't do anything in your own neighborhood," he said later in an interview. "No one should have to feel that way: unsafe around the police, unsafe in their own neighborhood."
Mr. Turner said he is used to police stops. He said he is stopped by police officers around the Bay Area probably once a month or every other month.
A refrain he hears often is, "You fit the description of who we're looking for." Although he is 37 years old, he said he has been detained regarding incidents that involved suspects who were teenagers of color.
As a delivery man for Doordash, a food delivery startup, he said he is now afraid to make deliveries in Menlo Park at night, and has lost out on potential income.
He admits that in his duties as a delivery man, he is sometimes required to do things that may appear to some to be suspicious. For example, many residents don't turn on lights to illuminate their house numbers. He sometimes has to walk up and down driveways to make sure he's found the right house for his delivery.
"I want them (police) to know it's more than just pulling someone over," he said. "It's humiliating. It's demoralizing. It has a psychological effect on us." He said he did not file a complaint with the department out of fear of retaliation, but does intend to file a lawsuit.
While in attendance at a community meeting the Menlo Park Police Department held Jan. 11 to discuss burglaries in the Willows neighborhood, Mr. Turner said he understood comments by the police chief to indicate that he "...pretty much gave (people) a green light to call the cops every time they see a colored person."
What Chief Jonsen said at that meeting was: "Every once in a while, your gut is going to tell you, that individual – just something about that individual – doesn't look right. Trust your intuition. That's why we have it. We're humans, right? Trust it, and call us, and let us do our job."
JT Faraji, 41, an African American resident of East Palo Alto, recently met with Chief Jonsen to talk about an incident that happened to him in August 2016. He was the passenger in a car with two other men, who wish to remain anonymous, that was stopped and searched by several Menlo Park police detectives who are part of the San Mateo County Gang Task Force and Narcotics Task Force (a multijurisdictional policing group that can do investigations outside Menlo Park).
Mr. Faraji alleged that while stopped at a T-intersection in East Palo Alto, an undercover police car turned right at the T, and then, he said, after the officers saw the car's occupants, made a U-turn and began to follow them.
They were shortly thereafter stopped for allegedly running a stop sign and speeding. Mr. Faraji said the driver did not run the stop sign or speed prior to the police stop. No video footage of the traffic incident was recorded.
Commander Bertini of the Menlo Park Police Department said in a later interview that the detectives who conducted the stop had probable cause.
After the car was stopped, the officers found that one of the young men was on probation, warranting a full search of the car, and another man's driver's license had just been suspended. Mr. Faraji had been recording the encounter on his phone but was required to put the phone down when an officer told him to put his hands up. Police may order passengers in a traffic stop to put their phones down, said Cmdr. Bertini.
In a meeting with Chief Jonsen, Mr. Faraji said he suggested the police department get dashboard cameras to record police observations of traffic stops, rather than rely on body cameras, which only record police intereactions with people.
Mr. Faraji said he thinks East Palo Alto is overpoliced, partly because of added police presence from other jurisdictions, and he thinks the gang task force should be dissolved.
"Menlo Park has no reason to come into our community," he said. "If we need help policing, our police chief can ask specifically for help."
Heavy policing in his area coupled with harsh sentencing laws has negative effects on his community. In a neighboring city, he said, "you can rape someone and get three months of jail," referring to the sentence Stanford's Brock Turner served after being convicted of sexual assault and attempt to commit rape in 2016.
In East Palo Alto, he said, "Families are destroyed for weed."
Willie Beasley, 55, an African American resident of Belle Haven in Menlo Park, told the Almanac that fear of the police is an everyday fact of life for him and others in his community.
"There's not a kid alive in the African American community that doesn't know what DWB – driving while black or brown – is," he said.
"Certain things you don't do in certain neighborhoods," he said. For instance, he said, he avoids wearing a baseball cap, baggy clothes or tennis shoes when he goes to a neighborhood where the residents are primarily Caucasian.
"Even though I try to control my environment (and) how I present myself, that's not going to save you," he said. "All it takes is one overzealous officer with a chip on his shoulder. ... They have a badge and authority."
Mandating that police officers use body cameras may not be so effective at curbing abuses of authority, he said. Across the nation, he said, "people are being gunned down on camera and can't even get a conviction."
Kathleen Daly, who owns Cafe Zoe in the Willows neighborhood, said that in the eight years since the cafe opened, every young man of color who has worked at her cafe – so far, there have been eight – has experienced being stopped by the police, whether in Menlo Park, Palo Alto or East Palo Alto.
Some have been stopped multiple times. Recently, an employee was stopped while walking from East Palo Alto to Menlo Park along Woodland Avenue and was late for his shift. The police officer was friendly enough, the young man told her, but several months earlier, the same young man, while walking across the Willow Road/U.S. 101 bridge, said he had been knocked to the ground and had a gun pulled on him by an East Palo Alto officer.
"They're stopped because they're young people of color," Ms. Daly said. "These young people are being pulled over, stopped, (and) asked stupid questions for walking down the friggin' street."
She said she understands the fear in the neighborhood – her own cafe has been broken into twice – but wants to point out to the community that there are many young people of color who walk through the neighborhood regularly. She believes that being stopped by the police, having done nothing wrong, can have lasting psychological impacts on local youth.
"We are traumatizing young men of color," she said.
Chief Jonsen said his officers have the authority to stop someone for a traffic violation, such as running a stop sign, and search the car if the officer thinks there is reason to suspect illegal activity. He said he expects his officers to treat people with respect.
Chief Jonsen invites anyone who has questions about police behavior to call the department at (650) 330-6300 to schedule a meeting with him. The Menlo Park Police Department has won three awards for community policing since October 2015.
He admitted that in encouraging residents to call the police whenever they see anything that could arouse suspicion, police do contact innocent landscapers, construction workers and residents. But it's not the police department's job, he said, to ferret out the mindset of the person who calls. The department's job, he said, is to respond to calls for service, and catch people who commit crimes.
Commander Bertini added that dispatchers are expected to ask further questions about suspects beyond their race.
The police department is under new pressure, since burglaries and petty theft are on the rise, Chief Jonsen said. Part of this he attributes to the passage of the voter initiative Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for such crimes. According to the law, theft of items worth less than $950 is now prosecuted as a misdemeanor. With a weaker legal deterrent for would-be burglars, he said, property crime is on the rise across California and will likely stay that way until incentives change.
Residents have expressed serious concerns about these crimes. Willows resident Chris Finan, who attended the community meeting held in January, said he was pleased that Mayor Kirsten Keith and Chief Jonsen are working to address the burglaries in the neighborhood, and were treating it as a priority.
"My wife and I are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's deeply unsettling for us to feel a sense of vulnerability in our home, when we experienced so much abroad," Mr. Finan said in an email to the City Council. "That's not how we want to live and raise our family. I believe we as a community should be able to find a solution to ensure a sense of security."
Jeff Young, a resident of the Linfield Oaks neighborhood who is Asian-American, also suggested there may be unintended consequences of treating people of color with suspicion in majority-white communities. "People aren't stupid," he said. "Do the Menlo Park police intend to alienate people of color? Probably not," he said. "(Their) cumulative actions add up to: 'You are not welcome. We find you suspicious. We find your behavior suspicious.' That's what comes through."
He was recently stopped by the police while walking in the Willows neighborhood with a neighbor. The encounter with the police was friendly enough, he said, but he did feel somewhat singled out compared to his other neighbors out walking around at the same time, and wasn't sure why anyone would be suspicious of him. Maybe it was his goofy-looking hat, he suggested.
Debbi Jones-Thomas, the mother of DeBraun Thomas, is executive board member of the Police Activities League in Redwood City, and has lived in the same house in the Willows neighborhood for 29 years, she said.
She said police officers should be required to undergo implicit bias training. "The reality is, our police officers are human beings," she said. "They are subject to biases and prejudices just like any other human being. What they fail to understand is that when they use those perceptions based on what someone looks like, they not only humiliate innocent people – they put innocent lives at risk. That's the problem I have."
Implicit bias training at the neighborhood level could be useful too, Ms. Jones-Thomas said.
Mr. Thomas, her son, suggested: "If you see a person of color in your neighborhood, don't jump on the phone and call the police. If you think they're up to no good, figure out why."
"I want better from my community," Ms. Jones-Thomas said. For her, that would happen when everybody is treated fairly regardless of their race, clothing or the kind of car they drive.
• Related story: Police encounters: 'Am I free to leave?'
How to contact us
Email reporter Kate Bradshaw at [email protected] and Editor Richard Hine at [email protected] Email letters to the editor to: [email protected] No more than 300 words. Include phone number and home address, and write "letter for publication" in the subject line. (If the letter runs, your name, street name and city of residence will be published, not your phone number or address.)
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Brock Turner in 2016 was convicted of rape. He was convicted of sexual assault and intent to commit rape.