Saleema Lovelace has dedicated her life to her community in suburban Philadelphia. Most of that work involves being a liaison between Black residents and police.
Lovelace never imagined that one day she would find herself on the other side of the law. But on Jan. 13, 2021, while she was driving home from assisting the Plymouth Police Department with standoff negotiations, Lovelace found herself and her elderly father surrounded by dozens of Plymouth police officers, sirens blazing and guns drawn.
Lovelace started to panic. She had no clue why officers ordered her from the car, demanding that she walked backward with her hands up, before they handcuffed them behind her.
Lovelace, 45, is a member of Philadelphia’s 39th Police District Advisory Council and has sat on several other boards. She worked as a youth advocate and was a legislative aide for a state senator for two years.
Police body-worn camera footage obtained by Atlanta Black Star from the ordeal shows a row of police vans lined across the parking lot. The community activist starts sobbing and hyperventilating and is almost inconsolable when police officers get her in the patrol car.
Court documents show about 25 officers responded to the scene because of the heavy police presence surrounding the standoff Lovelace had just left.
“Roll your windows down. Put your hands outside,” one officer yelled
“Drop the keys outside the window,” another officer said on a speaker.
Lovelace said she was shocked and “extremely afraid.” She was also worried about her father, then 76, who has Alzheimer’s disease and was diagnosed with schizophrenic depression.
“Slowly exit the car, facing the store, away from us,” an officer ordered.
As Lovelace walked backward to the patrol cars that surrounded her on the scene, she feared she could lose her life with one misstep. Lovelace also had a licensed firearm in her coat.
“There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling, a lot of demands, so many different demands for me to get out of the car. Raise your right hand. Raise your left hand,” Lovelace told Atlanta Black Star.
Lovelace tried to explain to the officers that she was helping their department with the standoff.
“I just literally left from across the street,” Lovelace cries out as the officer places her in handcuffs and removes the gun from her clothes. They ordered the woman’s father out of the car and detained him as well. Officers ultimately took him home.
“Don’t panic,” one of the officers told Lovelace.
The Nissan Sentra Lovelace had been driving for six months had been reported stolen by the rental car company Hertz. But Lovelace had made a payment the day before to the Dollar Rent A Car, where she had rented the Nissan in July after a car accident.
She requested an extension at the end of the month while her vehicle was being fixed. This time, they asked Lovelace to bring the car in for an inspection, but the Hertz representative agreed to extend the car to Jan. 15, 2021.
Lovelace started to hyperventilate. In between breaths, she tells a Plymouth officer she has a copy of the payment confirmation in her email inbox on her phone. She is also worried about who will meet her 11-year-old daughter when she gets home from school.
“I am scared,” Lovelace whispers. The officer tried to calm the woman.
“Nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s injured. Everybody’s fine,” he reassures her. “We have to figure out why they reported this car stolen. And everything else. OK. There are moments in Philadelphia where things get reported as a mixup. Maybe that’s the case.”
Lovelace was detained in the police car for half an hour. There she was so stressed that she urinated herself, according to court documents. Once at the Plymouth police station, she was fingerprinted, photographed and cited.
Detectives reviewed the receipt, but she was informed that she would receive a summons in the mail to fight the issue in court. She was released and officers took her home.
Lovelace is one of nearly 400 people who filed claims against Hertz for a false arrest. Some spent time in jail and lost their jobs, homes, and other opportunities, but all of them are left with long-lasting effects of their traumatic encounters with police for a crime they never committed.
The civil lawsuit filed in a Delaware Superior Court in July after a judge ruled it could proceed outside of bankruptcy, alleges that the rental car company has been using police as tax-funded repossessors of thousands of vehicles that were erroneously reported stolen.
About 85 percent of those Hertz customers who were wrongfully arrested were Black, the attorney leading the suit told Atlanta Black Star. The consequences for them have been life-altering.
The customers are seeking $750 million from the Florida-based company.
Francis Alexander Malofiy, the attorney representing them, said Hertz is “putting the police at odds with a community that already has a strained relationship” with law enforcement.
“It is absolutely wrong. It’s intolerable,” Malofiy told Atlanta Black Star. “It’s wrong primarily to the customer, who is a valid paying customer or has a business relationship. It’s wrong to the police, who were basically acting as strong arms for a private corporation. And it’s wrong to the taxpayers, who are basically having their funds diverted away from stopping crime or resolving issues in the community, by putting it towards a global corporation’s security and finding their own cars because they’re not doing it themselves.”
Nearly two years after the ordeal, Lovelace is still dealing with the aftereffects of the traumatic ordeal. The Plymouth Police department ended its partnership with Lovelace immediately after her felony arrest. She could no longer work as a youth advocate and had to close down one of her offices in the area.
It also hampered her chances of winning a Plymouth Township’s Council seat in March 2021. Her father’s mental health also declined because of the police encounter. She is still trying to piece her life back together.
Antwanette Hill was arrested four times between 2018 and 2021 because of Hertz’s false police claim. She was pregnant in May 2021 when she was arrested for failure to appear in court for the charges.
Hill said she never received the notice. She spent nine days in jail. One night, she started bleeding heavily and was taken to the infirmary. Jail staff sent Hill back to her cell, where the bleeding got worse. Hill was then sent to the hospital, where she discovered she had miscarried the child.
Attorney Malofiy says Hertz frequently made false police reports because of system failures. He added that they’ve known about the problems for years but have done nothing to correct them.
Although the company allows renters to seek extensions over the phone, through its app, and in person, the lawsuit alleges Hertz’s Vehicle Control Unit does not have access to local branches or call center records documenting the extensions.
“No company in America is arresting their very own customers at gunpoint over a civil payment dispute at most,” he said.
Hertz also reported customers with “net due” on their rentals and a denied card, but the lawsuit claims the company does not attempt to charge the renter’s card until after it reports the theft. Employees never update the police report after the customer pays, the suit says.
“If you go to Hertz and you have a valid ID and a valid form of payment, the presumption is you’re not a car thief because you wouldn’t give your valid ID and your valid form of payment,” Malofiy said.
Hertz files at least 3,365 customer theft reports every year, according to court documents. Public reports of false Hertz arrests go back to at least 2015.
Hertz Corp. CEO Stephen Scherr promised in April to tackle the problem within his first 30 days of taking on the role and “do right where our customers have been negatively affected.”
“We have changed our policies to avoid the possibility of this happening and I think to put context to it, if you look at the several 100 people impacted, we, we engage in 15 million transactions a year, this is 1/100 of a percent of those transactions,” Scherr told CNBC. But again, it’s to make no excuse, one customer should not be affected by this.”
Malofiy said Scherr vowed that the company would rescind the false arrests.
Lovelace’s name was at the top of the list he sent to Hertz, but Scherr did not keep his promise, the attorney said. Malofiy ultimately defended Lovelace in the criminal case that was dismissed in late October.
“How can you allow something like this to happen? And why for so long? Almost two years,” Lovelace said.
Hertz also reported vehicles stolen while they were sitting in their car lots or “validly rented to customers,” the lawsuit says. Employees who filed reports also failed to notate the system.
James Tolen, 37, was detained at gunpoint just before Christmas in 2020 after Houston police received a report that he was driving a stolen truck. Hertz reported the vehicle stolen in September 2020, but Tolen and his partner, Krystal Carter, rented the vehicle from their local Hertz rental center in October 2020.
“My mind went blank and I was just sort of shaking,” Tolen recalled of the night he was pulled over and met with the barrels of four police service weapons.
The couple had rented vehicles for Hertz for several years, spending at least $8,000 in 2020 and reaching Hertz’s President’s Circle status, the highest reward level a customer could achieve. The manager at the South Main Street store in Houston knew them by their names.
After they reported the incident to Hertz, a customer service representative offered them a refund, but they had to sign a waiver first. However, Tolen and Carter refused to sign. Carter believes other customers probably signed the waiver that potentially bars them from joining the class-action suit.
“To know that it didn’t matter how frequently we patronize this company. It didn’t matter how much money you spent with them. At the end of the day. …It wasn’t I’m sorry this happened to him. They didn’t take ownership,” Carter told Atlanta Black Star.
“And so my thought as the Black woman was that could have been it for my significant other, and the media and the news would have ran ‘Alleged Car Thief Killed by Police Officers.’ That would have been the story. And in the comment sections, his character would have been annihilated,'” she continued.
Tolen was driving home after completing a construction project on Dec. 23, 2020, when he was pulled over in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood. Police ordered him to get out of the car and walk backward to the sound of their voices.
It was dark outside, and there was one working street light, but Tolen noticed a mural of George Floyd behind him. It was the same neighborhood where the man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer seven months before grew up.
“I kind of made me feel like you’re next. There was nothing I could do,” he said. “It was dark. No one was there. I couldn’t touch my phone. I couldn’t let nobody know. …Opening the door that really rattled me because one simple mistake and I could’ve been dead.”
Police frisked, handcuffed and put Tolen in the back of a patrol vehicle. They didn’t buy his story that the truck was a valid rental.
“I was begging them to try to explain my story to them, trying to whatever came in mind to let them know I’m not in the wrong,” he told Atlanta Black Star.
Tolen had never been arrested before, and he didn’t want to be locked away from his family on Christmas Day. One of the officers eventually looked at the rental contract in the vehicle’s glove box. The officer called Hertz, and Tolen said he overheard the person on the other end of the phone telling the police to take the car and process him.
Realizing he had a valid contract, the officers released him instead. They also trailed Tolen home so he wouldn’t be pulled over again.
The lawsuit alleges Hertz filed the police reports with “little or no investigation or verification” and saved money by not hiring staff to complete those investigations. It also accuses Hertz of not spending money on updated tracking systems to monitor its inventory.
Hertz spokesperson Jonathan Stern told Atlanta Black Star that the company does not collect or maintain any records of the customers’ race or national origin. He could not go into specifics “related to ongoing issues currently in litigation” but said Hertz has sent 60 confidential settlements to customers who were falsely arrested.
“Hertz cares deeply about our customers, and successfully provide rental vehicles for tens of millions of satisfied travelers each year. While we remain steadfast in our commitment to defend the company’s interest against those that intend harm, we also want to do right by our customers,” Stern said in an email to Atlanta Black Star.
“These settlement offers are not exhaustive. We are diligently moving through the individual claims as efficiently and rapidly as possible and look forward to continuing to make progress towards reaching resolutions,” he continued.
The settlements came as Hertz hired a new general counsel, Colleen Batcheler, in April coinciding with the CEO’s promise. Batcheler replaced M. David Galainena, a now-retired partner at Winston & Strawn, a firm that reviewed Jussie Smollet’s criminal case for making a false police report.
“When Hertz files a theft report, the consequence is going to be law enforcement placing a gun to a person’s head,” Malofiy said. “You can’t do that if you’re a private individual. You can’t file false reports, and this is what’s happening.”