By Alex Emslie
Police won’t seek criminal charges against a San Francisco deputy public defender arrested outside a courtroom last week, Chief Greg Suhr said at a Wednesday night meeting of the city’s Police Commission.
But the controversy stemming from the brief detention of two black men in a courthouse hallway, followed by the arrest of their attorney when she stepped in, appeared far from over.
Police arrested Deputy Public Defender Jami Tillotson on suspicion of obstructing a peace officer after she questioned a police sergeant while he was attempting to photograph two men outside a courtroom at the Hall of Justice.
Tillotson had represented one of the men earlier that day, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who released cellphone video of the arrest (below). The video shows Sgt. Brian Stansbury asking Tillotson to step aside.
“I’m pretty sure we’re OK here,” Tillotson said. “We don’t need any pictures taken.”
The sergeant then said he would arrest her and Tillotson replied, “Please do.”
Stansbury then handcuffed her and a uniformed officer escorted her away. She was detained for about an hour, Adachi said.
Adachi told the Police Commission he is outraged and disappointed over the arrest and the department’s response to the incident.
“I made it clear that what we wanted was an apology,” he said. “Instead, there was a public statement saying that what they did was completely justified.”
Suhr said Stansbury had reasonable suspicion to stop the men and photograph them because the sergeant believed they were wearing the same clothing he suspected they were wearing when they committed a burglary.
“I do apologize for any distress caused to Ms. Tillotson during her detention,” Suhr said. “I don’t disagree that he had reasonable suspicion, but that case … it has not been presented, and we will not be seeking a warrant on that matter. So there will not be criminal charges. It will be closed out as an investigative detention.”
In a letter to the commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California questioned whether detaining the men was in line with Police Department policy. The ACLU also said the incident raises broader issues concerning police treatment of young black men.
“[A]s Ferguson reminds us, this country and this City have a long way to go to overcome the community distrust and fear of the police that are prevalent in certain communities,” the letter says. “The actions of the police last Tuesday have an appearance of police overreaching and racial profiling.”
Alan Schlosser, the legal director of the Northern California ACLU, said the setting of the arrest raised alarm.
“If they can do that in a courthouse, what can they do to me on the street where there are no lawyers, and no videos?” he asked.
Police Commission member Petra DeJesus said the agency should investigate whether the department has adequate policies regarding detaining a suspect when his or her attorney is present.
“I mean we can’t go around arresting attorneys,” she said.
“Well, unless they break the law,” Commission President Suzy Loftus said, adding that the arrest is under investigation by the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints.
Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco said the commission must remain silent on the case because it will hear and rule on that investigation.
“There is a policy,” Commission Vice President Julius Turman said. “It’s called the 6th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and we will take up in this process what violation, if any, occurred of that.”