Tiburon settles racial-profiling claim for $150,000, reform
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Tiburon has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a claim filed by residents Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash over an incident of alleged racial profiling by police at the couple’s Main Street clothing store in August 2020.
The settlement, announced April 18 after being unanimously approved by the Town Council in a closed-session April 13 meeting, is for significantly less than the $2 million sought by the couple and business partners, and it comes after the Police Department officially deemed their complaint was unfounded, though the results of a town-initiated investigation into the incident were never released.
As part of the agreement, either Khalif or Awash will serve one term on a planned Tiburon police citizen advisory committee that is expected to provide ongoing input about community policing.
“We love our community” Khalif said in a press release. “We wanted to make sure that people in the community are aware of these issues and that Tiburon Police Department made changes to improve policing in the community. Given all of the police issues in our country over the last two years, we knew we needed to make changes.”
“I am happy we were able to resolve the dispute without resorting to litigation” Mayor Jon Welner said in the release. “The changes proposed by Yema and Hawi are very positive and will help make the town of Tiburon a leader in the areas of diversity, inclusion and transparency.”
Town Attorney Ben Stock declined to comment on the settlement. Attorney Charles Bonner, who is representing Khalif and Awash, also declined to comment, noting his clients were set speak at a press conference at their store on April 19, after The Ark’s press deadline.
The couple previously filed a similar $2-milllion claim against Belvedere, which rejected the request by taking no action. Bonner said the couple hopes to engage in continued negotiations with the city.
The payout requests stem from a heated exchange that occurred about 1 a.m. Aug. 21, 2020, a Friday morning, between three Tiburon Peninsula police officers and Khalif, who was with Awash and a friend and business associate near the checkout counter inside Yema, the Fountain Plaza clothing store the couple owns. The couple was reportedly chatting at the front counter after restocking the store ahead of the weekend. There had been no calls reporting suspicious activity, no alarms sounding, the interior lights were on and no one attempted to flee. Several life-sized posters of Khalif and Awash, who also model their designs, were visible through the windows, while Khalif was wearing the same clothing as the mannequin in the front window display adjacent to the door.
The incident was captured on cellphone and police body-cameras, which show Tiburon patrol Officer Isaac Madfes and Sgt. Michael Blasi noting that late-night activity in downtown Tiburon is unusual and repeatedly asking Khalif to provide proof of his identity and that he is the storeowner. Khalif repeatedly declines, saying he doesn’t have to explain his presence or produce identification if the officers can’t articulate suspicion that a crime may be occurring, though at one point Blasi argues Khalif was required to do so. Khalif’s assertions accurately reflect federal and California laws.
Throughout the incident, Belvedere Officer Jeremy Clark, responding routinely as part of mutual-aid protocols, is seen placing his hand on his holstered gun.
The incident ended when a neighboring resident shouted out that Khalif was indeed the storeowner, and the officers promptly left without the proof of his identity or store ownership they'd asserted was required. Khalif and Awash asserted they were racially profiled, saying they'd been stopped at least five times previously by local officers, including by Clark.
The exchange, which occurred amid a national reckoning on race and policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, went viral online, prompting a range of community reactions. Many alleged racial profiling and called for reforms, while others expressed support for the police, saying the officers were doing their jobs and that Khalif should have complied.
The town commissioned an outside investigation into the conduct of the officers; however, because Blasi resigned following the incident and was therefore no longer a town employee, there was reportedly no investigation into his conduct. Police Chief Michael Cronin also announced his retirement, which he and town officials said was already in the works.
Ultimately, the results of the investigation were then kept confidential after the remaining officers involved refused to consent to its public release.
In announcing the report was final but would not be released, town officials declined to comment further on the outcome of the report or its scope, such as whether it focused on only the single incident or reviewed department-wide practices with recommendations for policy changes or training, or whether any issues addressed in the report would be taken to the Town Council for further review.
However, Town Manager Greg Chanis confirmed a racial-bias complaint listed on the town’s police-transparency website was related to the incident. Chanis said the new chief, Ryan Monaghan, felt strongly that the site report the claim was “unfounded’; other complaints use language such as “not sustained” or “exonerated.”
Khalif and Awash filed the administrative claims against Tiburon and Belvedere in late 2020 and early 2021, respectively, asserting they suffered “severe emotional and mental distress,” including anxiety, insomnia and harm to reputation due to the incident and were considering moving out of Tiburon.
The town initially rejected the couple’s $2-million request in December 2020. Stock said at the time the town was committed to avoiding a lawsuit and encouraged Khalif and Awash to “move forward in a positive direction fostering an open dialogue rather than litigation.”
In addition to sparking an online joint community forum attended by hundreds and two local Black Lives Matter protests, the exchange resulted in the creation of a Diversity Inclusion Task Force, which is made up of all five Town Councilmembers and five members of the general public appointed by the Town Council and aims to address issues of race and bias in the community.
Awash previously applied for a seat on the task force, but her nomination was rejected in a 2-2 vote, with then-Mayor Holli Thier and then-Vice Mayor Jon Welner backing her appointment and Councilmembers Jack Ryan and Alice Fredericks opposing. Thier and Welner, who has since become mayor, noted Awash’s input was instrumental in the town creating the committee; however Fredericks and Ryan, who has since become vice mayor, said the $2 million claim and the threat of litigation could undermine the group’s work and create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Under the settlement agreement, either Khalif or Awash will serve one term on the citizen advisory committee the Police Department plans to have up and running in the fall. That role is dependent on Khalif or Awash satisfying the residency requirement for the panel, which grew out of a series of community meetings hosted by the department late last year.
The “Living and Growing Together” series included five forums held from August to October, with sessions targeting Tiburon’s business community, faith-based groups, underrepresented populations and the general public. The forums were a part of what Monaghan, who was hired in April 2021, called a push to “recalibrate” the department after the exchange at Yema and a subsequent series of incidents involving race and allegations of profiling.
Those included accusations of profiling when the previous chief warned that a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in predominantly Black Marin City could turn violent but didn’t issue such warnings for closer protests in predominantly white neighborhoods and a complaint about an officer wearing a Thin Blue Line face covering, a symbol that has been banned on the job by departments elsewhere for its increasing appearance at white-supremacist rallies.
Monaghan said the proposed citizen advisory committee would be a way for residents to have a more prominent say and opportunity to provide constant input to the department. He has tentatively targeted November to have that group formed, as the department is still figuring out the best way to structure the committee.
The citizen committee is one in a series of initiatives the Police Department has put into place in the wake of the incident at Yema as part of what it says is an effort to be more transparent with and to better serve the community.
In addition to increasing its foot patrols in the downtown area to better engage with business owners and residents, the department has implemented a requirement that officers hand out business cards with identification information to members of the public after most interactions; those cards include contact information including a website to allow residents to provide public feedback about police interactions.
The department has also increased the frequency of training on biased-based policing from every five years to every two years. In December 2020 and in February 2021, all department staff attended half-day trainings focused on implicit bias.
Beginning in late 2020, the department began tracking race and other demographic data of those stopped or detained by police, with the information published in real time on a “stop-data dashboard” on the town’s website. All police departments across the state are required to collect and publish stop data by April 2023 under the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which was enacted in 2016 as part of Assembly Bill 953.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.