Three Black men are accusing the San Francisco Police Department of racial profiling after they were detained at a high-end department store for several hours before being cleared of wrongdoing.
The three friends and Oakland natives were detained at the Saks Fifth Avenue store on Union Square on March 3.
Police said one of the men detained matched the description provided by a caller of a man the caller said had been brandishing a firearm inside the store.
The men said they had been shopping inside the store for 30 minutes or less when police approached them with guns drawn.
“‘Hey you three, get the f— down,'” an officer said to them, according to Greg Peirson, who was handcuffed because police believed he matcher the description of the man with the gun.
“We turned around surprised,” he told local station KTVU.
Peirson said he visits the store often and that the employees recognized him. He questioned whether the police verified the report of a man with a gun with staff members. “You don’t even know if this call is true,” he said.
Peirson said police “Jumped to the conclusion, it’s three Black men upstairs, they have a gun.” There were no weapons found at the scene. The men say they were detained for over two hours. Footage of the detention was shared with KTVU.
“Very scared, down on the ground. I was listening to everything they said just like I was supposed to, ’cause I didn’t want them to shoot me,” said Michael Melson, Peirson’s friend.
Police did detain and speak to the white man who placed the call about about a person with a firearm in the store. Officers said he behaved aggressively as they were speaking to the three Black men. He was cited for obstruction of a police investigation and released.
Peirson said he believed he and his friends were racially profiled and that the man who made the report was treated less aggressively than they were.
“It was racial profiling to me from what I see,” said Peirson.
The San Francisco Police Department released a statement saying the officers “acted according to policy when responding to a report of a person brandishing a firearm.” The department declined to speak on-camera to KTVU but noted that the officers activated their body camera and said the men can file a complaint with the Department of Police Accountability.
The friends are being represented by civil rights attorney Adante Pointer and intend to file a lawsuit, although it is not clear whether they intend to sue the SFPD, the man who made the call, or both. Last fall the city of San Francisco passed the Caution Against Racially and Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act, which gives targets of false 911 calls made on the basis of bias the right to sue such callers.
San Francisco lawmakers enacted the law in the wake of notable instances of Black men being unfairly targeted by police after false 911 calls, often made by whites, cases that have tragic outcomes for men like John Crawford III in an Ohio Walmart, or adverse consequences for the caller in the instance of New York birdwatcher Christian Cooper. State lawmakers in California are considering legislation that would criminalize such calls.
Peirson said he wishes the officers had given them the benefit of the doubt. “That’s a scary thing to have my life in somebody else’s hands like that, especially being innocent.”