Tiburon merchants sue Belvedere in racial controversy

The black owners of a business in Tiburon have filed a $2 million federal lawsuit against Belvedere over the role of one of its executives in a controversial 2020 encounter.

Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash, the married owners of the Yema clothing store, allege civil rights violations by the officer.

The couple had previously settled a racial profiling complaint against Tiburon regarding the conduct of his officers. The city agreed in April to pay $150,000 and create a police advisory board.

The new lawsuit, filed Wednesday, lists the defendants as Belvedere, Belvedere Police Department, former city manager Craig Middleton, police chief Jason Wu, officer Jeremy Clark and Nancy Kemnitzer, a member of the city ​​council who was mayor when the incident happened.

The lawsuit alleges Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment civil rights violations, with specific allegations of denial of equal protection, unlawful detention and racially based conspiracy.

The couple’s attorney, David Anderson of Mill Valley, said body cameras and cellphone footage showed a Belvedere police officer unlocking the strap of his duty revolver during the interaction.

“Thoughts crossed Yema and Hawi’s minds and both genuinely believed they were about to be shot, possibly killed,” Anderson said. “That particular moment of the unwarranted confrontation of about 15 minutes still haunts them and will likely remain so for the rest of their lives.”

Khalif declined to comment on Friday.

Belvedere City Manager Robert Zadnik said the city received the complaint and supporting documents Thursday afternoon. He said it was too early for city officials to comment.

The incident happened around 1 a.m. on August 21, 2020. Khalif, Awash and a friend were inside the Main Street store when Tiburon Police Officer Isaac Madfes approached and asked them for ID.

The officer was then joined by a supervisor, Sgt. Michael Blasi and Clark. Khalif argued with police over whether people inside the store had to prove their right to be there. The tense confrontation ended when a passerby said, “It’s his store.” The officers left.

In the ensuing controversy, Blasi resigned. Tiburon Police Chief Michael Cronin also resigned that year for a retirement he said was long overdue.

The couple filed a $2 million claim against Tiburon. They said they avoided filing a federal civil rights lawsuit because the city agreed to negotiate a settlement.

“It was a very difficult decision for them to pursue legal action against the police and elected officials in Tiburon and Belvedere,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, Belvedere officials chose not to participate in the voluntary negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable outcome.”

The lawsuit says Belvedere representatives were invited through their attorney to participate in the mediation efforts with Tiburon.

“They declined and refused efforts to resolve significant disagreements,” the lawsuit said.

The main reform under the Tiburon regulations is the creation of a citizens’ advisory committee to the department. The committee is designed as a community engagement body to provide recommendations to the Chief of Police, receive complaints from citizens, and participate in the process of hiring and interviewing police officers. Khalif and Awash were given one-year terms on the panel.

The regulations also require Tiburon police officers to hand out business cards with identifying information after “most interactions.”

The regulations also call for the implementation of a reporting policy linked to race/ethnicity, gender and age of searches, in line with the Racial and Identity Profiling Act 2015. It also increases the frequency of anti-bias training from every five years to every two years. .

The program is expected to begin in the fall.

“Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash are extremely grateful for the willingness of Tiburon officials to have made concessions on the way law enforcement is carried out in Tiburon,” Anderson said.

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