Dolores Coleman's son was detained by a police officer one afternoon as he left his school. Her husband, son, and civil rights attorney John Burris look on. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

The San Francisco Police Department has been accused of racial profiling and illegal detention in a March incident in which an officer grabbed a 13-year-old Black student as the child was stepping out of his private school and walking to his tutor’s car.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, who yesterday filed a claim against the city regarding the incident, denounced the actions of the officer today during a press conference.

“There was no legitimate basis to stop this young man — only that he was Black, he was African American. That, in and of itself, was not enough,” Burris said today. “It requires probable cause or at least reasonable suspicion.”

Burris’ filing said Sergeant Matthew Parra of the SFPD was looking for a Black suspect breaking into cars. The suspect was allegedly wearing black pants, a black hoodie, and red shoes. At the same time, Parra saw a young boy with red shoelaces leaving the private 4-12 Sterne School on Kearny Street. The student, wearing a hoodie and pants with a large Mickey Mouse on them, was crossing the sidewalk to enter his tutor’s car.

According to Burris, the officer shouted, “Get out of the car, put your hands behind your back,” as he hurriedly approached, then grabbed the child in the street. The interaction can be seen, but not heard, on surveillance camera footage.

Before putting hands on the child, Burris said today, the officer could have taken a second to assess the age, complexion, height, or weight of the boy and might have realized he did not fit the description of the suspect.

Although Sgt. Parra’s incident report claims the interaction lasted only one minute, Burris said that, in reality, Parra kept the child for nearly 20 minutes, even after it was clear he was not the perpetrator. Video footage provided by Burris’ office shows the interaction goes on for more than 18 minutes. The SFPD has not responded to a request for comment.

The SFPD recently released data showing the department is 10 times more likely to stop and search a Black person than a white person, and 12 times as likely to use force against Black people as compared to white people.

The child’s parents spoke today about the weeks after the incident, which they said their son has not recovered from.

“My son is afraid,” said Michael Coleman, Sr. in an interview with Mission Local. Typically a happy-go-lucky child, Coleman said his son now wants to sleep between his parents and refuses to wear the sneakers he had on that day.

Coleman said his son is reluctant to even leave his school on his own unless his father is standing outside the door. During the press conference, the 13-year-old fidgeted among the adults speaking, and rested his head on his mother’s shoulder.

“We tried to prepare him for this, but you can never prepare your kids for this type of moment,” said Coleman, who works in social services and often interacts with police.

Dolores Coleman, the child’s mother, said she had had a conversation with her son about being wary of potential police encounters three years ago, but said she never expected such an encounter would happen at school.

Although the Sterne School has been supportive of his family, the Colemans plan to transfer their son to a school in Marin, where at least Coleman and his wife can be there easily if something happens.

The Sterne School is a private 4-12 day school on Kearny Street. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan .

Tenisha Tate Austin, a friend of the family who was present today, said that it is “unacceptable” that the Colemans’ son will now have to leave a school that his parents had found to address his learning needs. “That’s another level to the sacrifice that this family’s having to make.”

The March 15 incident was caught on a nearby surveillance camera, and the 7th-grade boy can be seen crossing the sidewalk to a car that arrived to pick him up around 1 p.m. As he puts his backpack down and prepares to get into the car, a police officer hurries over and physically grabs and pulls the child away from the car.

The child was being picked up from school by his tutor, who immediately exited the car to intervene. More adults from the school arrived on the scene and engaged with Parra for nearly 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the boy paced the sidewalk, made phone calls, and hugged his acquaintances.

“The emotion coming through the phone from him of how scared he was, is something that I will never forget,” said Dolores Coleman in an interview with Mission Local. Coleman said she was stuck in Marin during the incident when she got the call from her son.

“He was telling me, ‘they’re trying to take me to jail, Mama, they’re trying to take me to jail,’” said Coleman, who runs a catering business in Marin. If it hadn’t been for the tutor, an older white woman, Coleman said she wasn’t so sure her son would have been let go. Coleman said her son will soon begin seeing a therapist.

The city has 45 days to respond to the claim filed yesterday. If it is rejected, Burris said his office will proceed with a federal civil rights lawsuit. He is seeking injunctive relief in the form of a policy change and better training for SFPD to avoid incidents of racial profiling, as well as monetary damages for the Coleman family.

The head of the Sterne School Melissa Myers called the incident “disturbing” and noted that several staff members intervened to support the student, as seen in the video footage. “This student was simply exiting the school for the day, and did nothing wrong.” Myers said the school has filed a formal complaint with the police department.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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5 Comments

  1. This reads kind of suspiciously like a copy of the plaintiffs brief. As a frequent reader I trust your fairness and am pretty sure SFPD went to its usual no comment mode which really doesn’t serve it well. In cops defense suspects rarely exactly fit witness descriptions which are notoriously unreliable so it would make sense to look outside complete matches. On the other hand if I were looking for bicycle thieves, kids coming out of the posh school would not be my first choice for suspect pool so I have to wonder what this cop was thinking. Unlike this particular attorney who makes his living suing law enforcement I’m not rushing to assume that SFPD are all closet racist but the officer certainly has some explanation required.

  2. Why are we paying for police that can’t do their job, that harm kids? And who’s hiring these idiots? It’s high time to end this nonsense!

  3. Burris did not make any statement about the hoody so it’s guaranteed that was a match. Burris also only disputed that the pants had a Micky Mouse print, so guaranteed that was also a match. Red shoestrings instead of red shoes is half a match. Burris also acknowledged that the officer did not have any other identifying characteristics that would have excluded the kid. Obvious that the officer detained him based on matching two and a half out of the three description of the suspect’s dress and did not detain anyone solely on their race. And, yes sometimes people are detained even they did nothing wrong.

  4. Why did it take 18 minutes? Tutor picking him up immediately vouched for him. Attorney did mention discrepancy in attire. People do make mistakes but it’s a different level when someone has the authority to take your freedom and never apologize.

  5. I recall leadership of the POA called Gascon a racist and a drunk.
    Really POA find a mirror!

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