Tiburon releases body-cam footage of police questioning Black merchant

August 27, 2020

 

Tiburon officials have released body-camera footage from the first officer at the scene of a late-night confrontation between police and Black business owner Yema Khalif, who asserts he was racially profiled when questioned at his downtown shop.

 

The nearly 11-minute recording includes about 5 previously unseen minutes of the incident, which occurred about 1 a.m. Aug. 21 at Yema, the “action fashion wear” boutique at 10 Main St. owned by Khalif and partner Hawi Awash, Tiburon residents who are also the designers and models for the brand. The couple say they had received a large shipment of merchandise and that they and a visiting friend and business associate had been restocking the store to prepare for the weekend shortly before a patrol officer knocked on the door and questioned why they were there. The encounter escalated when the supervising sergeant arrived on scene. 

 

About 6 minutes of cellphone footage of the encounter with the supervisor, Tiburon police Sgt. Michael Blasi, was posted by Khalif to social media later Aug. 21. It sparked widespread outrage within the community and prompted town officials to order an independent investigation into the officers’ conduct. Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks called their behavior “unacceptable” and issued a public apology, and she and Belvedere’s mayor each apologized personally to Khalif and Awash. The governing councils are to hold a joint online Town Hall-Community Forum on Aug. 27.

 

Tiburon Town Council & Belvedere City Council Virtual Town Hall & Community Forum — 6:30 p.m. Aug. 27. https://zoom.us/j/95644043303 or 669-900-6833, meeting ID 956 4404 3303. Comment at the meeting, or in advance by emailing comments@townoftiburon.org.

 

It was unclear why late Aug. 26 Tiburon released the extended video, in which the previously unidentified Tiburon patrol officer, Isaac Madfes, speaks his first name aloud. The Ark requested the body-camera footage, names of the involved officers and the full police report Aug. 24 and 25, but officials refused the request, saying they would not release any additional information until the conclusion of the investigation.

 

Proof of belonging

 

The incident revolves around the officers’ assertions that because most Main Street businesses shut down about 9 or 10 p.m., and they’d never seen workers inside the shop at 1 a.m., Khalif was required to explain to the officers why they were inside and provide some physical evidence — identification or a key in the door — that he is the owner. 

 

Khalif acknowledged several times that “I want you to look out for my store” and “I want you to look out for my community,” but he repeatedly asked the officers what activity, beyond his presence alone, was suspicious and required explanation.

 

The store was well-lighted, and police reports show no alarm had sounded and no one had otherwise reported suspicious activity. At no point during the 11-minute exchange did either Tiburon officer assert any potential criminal or suspicious activity was occurring beyond their mere presence in the building at that hour.

 

Khalif insisted that if he acknowledged he was the owner, absent the officers’ explanation of a problem, evidence of a crime or reason to doubt him, he didn’t need to explain why he was in his own store after hours.

 

The officers repeatedly asserted, however, that Khalif was required to show identification, but California does not have a stop-and-identify statue. Criminal-law experts and civil-liberties organizations say there is no requirement to produce identification — even when detained — unless you’re operating a motor vehicle, which requires state-issued certification, or you have been arrested or booked for a crime.

 

Critics of Khalif say he was argumentative and antagonizing the officers from the start, and that he could have just showed his ID and quickly ended the incident. Khalif and Awash say, however, that they shouldn’t be required to repeatedly identify themselves to police to prove who they are and that they belong in town. Khalif, a resident for nearly 10 years, says he’s been stopped while walking home and had to prove that he lives in Tiburon. Awash says she’s been stopped in her car by a single officer three to five times in the past year and a half. Khalif says he wasn’t angry, just putting his foot down.

 

Critics of the officers’ handling of the incident note that Blasi did not de-escalate the encounter on his arrival. The newly released body-cam footage appears to highlight this further, with clearer audio than the cellphone footage that also shows a stark contrast between Blasi’s demeanor and that of Madfes, who speaks calmly throughout the first half of the video while Blasi then frequently shouts over Khalif and tells him he “should be grateful.” Other business owners have come forward to say that on the rare occasions they work late into the night, they've never been stopped and questioned at all, while Khalif was not only interrogated, Madfes had already called for backup before he first knocked on the door. Critics also note the officers finally left — without the proof they said was required for 11 minutes — only when a white Main Street resident who overheard the confrontation shouted, “That’s his store.”

 

New footage released

 

The video circulating on social media was recorded on Khalif’s friend’s cellphone from inside the store and was posted to Yema’s Instagram account, where it has been viewed nearly 45,000 times, and to its Facebook page, where it has been shared nearly 1,000 times, each garnering hundreds of comments.

 

The newly released footage begins about 6 minutes before that video begins, when Madfes is already parked on Tiburon Boulevard at Main Street and is getting out of his squad car. Khalif and Awash say they had already seen the car circle the block three to four times before it stopped outside the shop, where they say it sat for about 15 minutes — before the start of the town-released body-cam footage — and that they had anticipated what was about to happen next.

 

In the footage, Madfes is seen walking through Fountain Plaza toward the store and can be heard reporting “one BMA, one BFA” — one Black male adult and one Black female adult — which he corrects to three people, two Black males, as he gets closer.

 

An officer’s observations of perceived race, sex and age are standard when reporting in to dispatchers, as well as in logs and police reports.

 

The footage does not appear to contain an audio record of Madfes calling for backup — Blasi, as well as the on-duty patrol officer for Belvedere who overheard the call and responded as standard operating procedure, according to Belvedere Police Chief Jason Wu, were already on their way to the scene — suggesting the backup request took place before the body camera was switched on.

 

As Madfes approaches the store, Khalif, Awash and the friend can be seen inside at the checkout counter, apparently talking with each other. At least three large posters of Khalif and Awash modeling their clothes are visible on the rear wall throughout the footage. To the right in the video, a mannequin frequently is in view, just feet from Khalif, who has approached the door dressed in identical clothing — distinctive, African-inspired athletic-leisurewear.

 

In an Aug. 24 interview, Awash had said the officer’s tone was aggressive and suspicious and that he didn’t identify himself or ask if they were working late.

 

While he doesn’t initially identify himself, the footage shows Madfes begin by asking, in a seemingly friendly tone, “Hey guys, I’ve never seen you open this late — you just restocking?”

 

Khalif replies, “No, just doing our thing” and asks if there’s a problem.

 

Madfes says there isn’t, but that he’s never seen anyone in the store so late. Khalif begins speaking over the officer when Awash appears to say, “OK baby?” but Khalif tells her “No, no” and again asks the officer if there’s a problem.

 

The two engage, mostly in circles, for the next minute as Madfes repeatedly asks why the three are there so late, and Khalif, at times visibly showing frustration, repeatedly asks why it matters if there’s no problem.

 

About 2½ minutes into the video, Khalif says that if Madfes has a problem, “call your chief of police, call whoever you wanna call” — at which point Madfes acknowledges his supervisor, Blasi, is already on his way, consistent with Khalif’s previous accounts of the incident.

 

Madfes asks if Khalif owns the store.

 

“It does not matter. I’m not going to answer your question. If you have a problem, you tell me —”

 

“I have a problem with you guys being here so late and you not telling me why,” Madfes says.

 

Again, the exchange goes in circles, but tensions rise as Madfes shouts past Khalif to ask Awash and the friend, still standing at the checkout counter to the rear, “Do one of you two here own the store or have any reason to be here?”

 

Khalif speaks over him: “No, do not talk to anybody, you talk to me, you’re talking to me right now.”

 

Tensions escalate further when Madfes tells Khalif, “This town is my duty to protect.”

 

“I f—ing live here, do not tell me about whatever,” Khalif responds.

 

“OK, that’s fine. Where do you live?” Madfes says.

 

Again, Khalif says he’ll speak to the supervisor, but Madfes insists Khalif is required to “give me a lawful reason why you’re here.”

 

Same audio, different perspective

 

About 5½ minutes into the footage, Blasi arrives on the scene, though Khalif notes that a third officer has also arrived — a Belvedere patrol officer who is off screen but can be seen through the window in the separate video taken from inside the store and posted by Khalif to social media.

 

The remaining footage is the body-camera perspective of the exchange previously recorded from inside the store and circulated on social media.

 

Blasi begins asking the same questions as the first officer, including what the three were doing there late at night. 

 

 “This street closes at 9 o’clock at night, and there’s never anybody in here. This isn’t regular business hours, there’s no customers in here. Is it your store? That’s all we want to know,” Blasi says.

 

After Khalif asks four times what happens next if he acknowledges it is, Blasi says Khalif “should be grateful” that the officers are looking out for his shop. 

 

“OK, it’s my store,” Khalif responds.

 

Khalif becomes increasingly frustrated as Blasi’s requirement shifts: “Did you identify yourself? … Can you prove that it’s your store?”

 

Khalif: “I do not have to prove anything to you, it’s my store.”

 

Blasi: “Actually you do.”

 

Khalif: “No I don’t.”

 

Blasi: “Yes you do.”

 

Khalif: “No I don’t. To who? Why?”

 

Blasi: “Oh my god, yes you do have to prove who you are.”

 

Khalif: “I do not have to prove my existence to you.”

 

The argument continued for a few more minutes, with both Blasi and Khalif raising their voices.

 

At the 10-minute mark, Madfes chimes in again: “Prove to us you have keys or —”

 

“There you go, that’s the perfect thing,” Blasi says as Khalif removes something from his pocket. “You know what, put the key in the door and we’re outta here.”

 

Khalif is seen picking through his keys as he tells Blasi to stand back and not raise his voice at him: “Just chill and I’ll put my key in the door.”

 

Before he can, neighbor Ken Simpson, a part-time resident of a Main Street apartment, yells down twice, “That’s his store.”

 

“Thank you sir, that’s all I needed to know. Thank you, see ya,” Blasi says as he turns and walks away toward Fountain Plaza.

 

Madfes, however, again asks Khalif to put the key in the door, but this time Khalif declines: “That’s your supervisor, he say you walk away, walk away.”

 

As Madfes walks away and catches up to Blasi, Blasi can be heard saying, “He says it’s his store, that’s good enough for me. Next time, just walk —” and the audio and video cut out.

 

In a later interview, Simpson said he was concerned by the way the three officers were surrounding Khalif.

 

“It looked like they were harassing him and I thought, ‘This has gone on for several minutes,” Simpson said. “It just felt like it was going to progress into something ugly.”

 

Khalif called the fact that the situation was diffused by a white neighbor yelling down to vouch for him “the icing on the cake.”

 

 “A Black man cannot be in this space in this particular hour and say, ‘I’m OK, no need to be talking to you, move along.’ A Black man can not say that, but a white man can.”

 

‘They’re the ones with the guns’

 

Khalif, who has lived in Tiburon for nearly 10 years, and Awash are well-known in the Tiburon business community.  They opened the athletic apparel boutique in February. Several months later, the store was named Tiburon’s Business of the Month. Khalif was also a speaker at the 2018 Belvedere-Tiburon Library’s Pop-Up 94920 series.

 

Khalif, who designs most of the company’s clothing, grew up in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Awash was born in Ethiopia and lived as a refugee in Kenya before moving with her family to Minnesota. The couple met at Dominican University of California in San Rafael.

 

Police Chief Michael Cronin declined to directly comment on the Aug. 21 incident until the investigation has concluded, but he confirmed Blasi and the other officers involved would continue coming to work through the investigation. 

 

 “I do not have any intention of removing them at this time,” Cronin said. 

 

Fredericks said Cronin is planning a department-wide racial-bias training for late next month, which has been in the works since the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis in May, which led to widespread protests and mounting calls to end racial injustice and police brutality. 

 

After Floyd’s death and ahead of a peaceful June 2 protest in Marin City, Cronin sparked outrage among the community after he issued a statement warning residents to be wary should the demonstration become violent or lead to looting on the Tiburon Peninsula — neither of which happened. Community members pointed out Cronin had only issued a warning for the protest in Marin City, which is 61 percent non-white, including 38 percent Black, and had issued no such warnings for similar peaceful protests in other nearby predominantly white communities, including Mill Valley. 

 

 Cronin quickly apologized, saying he stood in support of peaceful protests in Marin City and condemned racism, social injustice and police brutality. The department also updated its use-of-force policy to align with calls to de-escalate police encounters with the public.

 

Khalif and Awash said Chanis, the town manager, reached out to them after the incident, and the three met on Aug. 23. 

 

 Awash characterized the conversation as positive.

 

 “We all want this to resolve in a positive way,” she said, noting she hopes the incident sparks conversation about “police reform and real policing that uses empathy to police our community.”

 

 She said that included conversations about how police officers can re-examine their implicit biases and eliminate their own fear on the job. 

 

 “They’re the ones with the guns, they’re the ones with the badge, they’re the ones with the authority,” she said. “What is it that they’re fearing?”

 

Kevin Hessel is The Ark’s executive editor. Reach him at 415-435-2652, on Twitter at @thearknewspaper and on Facebook at fb.me/thearknewspaper. Reporter Hannah Weikel and Assistant Editor Emily Lavin contributed to this report.

 

 

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