3 black Airbnb guests questioned by police plan lawsuit

Three black people plan to sue a Southern California police department over what they say was an excessive response to a racially motivated 911 call, but police say their officers' response was polite, brief and nothing out of the ordinary.

The Rialto Police Department said Monday it had received notice of legal action by the three, who were leaving an Airbnb rental with their luggage when a neighbor called police on April 30 to report a burglary in progress.

The encounter is the latest example of friction between law enforcement and minorities because of a call to 911. Last month, two black men in Philadelphia were arrested after a Starbucks employee called police because they hadn't bought anything.

Also in April, two Native American brothers on a college tour were questioned aggressively by police after a parent called to report her unease over their presence. Before that, in Pennsylvania, a golf club co-owner and his father called police on five African-American women who they say were playing too slowly.

Georgetown University law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler, who wrote the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men," says African-Americans bear the brunt of proving their innocence no matter how mundane the activity.

"The standard for an extreme law enforcement response to black people is very low," he said. "All you have to do is be waiting in a Starbucks or playing golf in Pennsylvania, or now, moving your luggage out of an Airbnb rental. That's literally all you have to do."

One of the Airbnb renters, Kells Fyffe-Marshall, wrote on social media that they were "surrounded" by seven police cars and told to put up their hands. Police said a helicopter was tracking them and an officer accused them of lying, she said.

"You want to laugh about this but it's not funny," said Fyffe-Marshall in her post, adding that police told her the woman called 911 when they "didn't wave to her as she looked at us" packing up.

But police pushed back, saying in a news release that officers were polite during the 22-minute interaction. The caller did not recognize the vehicle or the people, police said.

Rialto police Lt. Dean Hardin said it is standard for a helicopter to monitor the scene in a residential burglary in progress, in case someone leaves the house before ground police can get there.

"We didn't detain anybody, we didn't put anyone in handcuffs, we didn't point any weapons at anybody," he said. "We actually allowed them pretty free movement about the scene, so it's a pretty mild response to a situation."

Fyffe-Marshall declined comment, citing legal advice.

Rialto is in San Bernardino County about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.


Har reported from San Francisco


The ext. headline has been corrected to say three black people were questioned, not women.