By Alex Emslie
The Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is leading a charge in federal court against the San Francisco Police Department.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday, 23-year-old plaintiff Travis Hall alleges he was the victim of unlawful search and seizure, excessive force and false arrest at the hands of Mission District plainclothes police officers as he was being dropped off at his house the evening of April 10.
But the legal action appears to be about more than a single incident.
From the filing: “Unfortunately, Mr. Hall’s experience exemplifies that of all too many Black men here in San Francisco. Indeed, concerns about the gross racial disparities in arrests of Black people have plagued SFPD for years and have yet to be abated.”
The lawsuit alleges plainclothes police approached the car that Hall was preparing to exit at 95 McCoppin St. in the city’s SoMa district. Sgt. Anthony Montoya and Officer Giselle Talkoff pulled Hall from the rear passenger seat of his friend’s car when the 23-year-old attempted to call his mother during the detention.
“Defendants’ reaction to Mr. Hall’s attempt to call his mother was unreasonable given the circumstances and likely driven by an implicit bias against Black men and stereotypes about their predilections for violent behavior,” the lawsuit says.
Hall’s attorney, Ajay Krishnan, said that police had no probable cause to approach the car or detain its occupants in the first place, but that the more serious constitutional violations occurred after the initial stop.
“Travis was severely beaten,” he said. “These officers held his arms behind his back and kept him on the ground while they repeatedly kicked and punched him. Travis suffered from a concussion, and he had cuts and bruises all over his body.”
His attorneys said Hall received medical treatment while in custody. They are not releasing any photos or other documentation of his injuries at this time.
Krishnan and ACLU Attorney Nayna Gupta said Hall was the only one of four people in the car to be assaulted or arrested that night. Two other passengers were black, according to the suit. The attorneys would not elaborate on the charges under which Hall was booked, calling them “pretextual” and “trumped-up.”
The Police Department and city don’t, by policy, comment on pending litigation. An SFPD spokesman confirmed, however, that Hall was arrested under suspicion of resisting arrest, public intoxication and possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana.
He was released from custody the following day, and the district attorney’s office declined to file charges against him.
“Yes, those were the charges that SFPD reported,” the ACLU’s Rebecca Farmer wrote in response to a KQED inquiry, “but the DA quickly dropped them, as often happens when there is a false arrest or an arrest under false pretenses.”
Gupta said the ACLU hopes the lawsuit will help force policy changes around racial data collection, training and body-camera use in the SFPD.
“We want to seek justice for him,” she said of Hall, “but we’re also here because, yes, we think there is a problem with racially biased policing in the San Francisco Police Department and the way the Police Department interacts with communities of color.”
Gupta cited a recent report commissioned by the city’s Re-entry Council that found black San Franciscans are about seven times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. She also mentioned a long-running scandal over bigoted text messages sent to and from a former SFPD sergeant who supervised officers in the Mission District’s plainclothes unit.
“I keep thinking, what if they had hit his head on the pavement one more time?” said Hall’s mother, Leigh Stackpole. “What if the officer had pulled a gun? I might be one of those mothers protesting and demanding better policing, but only with a photo of my son on a poster rather than him standing next to me.”
Stockpole said she and her son attempted to challenge Hall’s treatment through the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints, but they “got no help.”
When asked to clarify if the OCC had failed to follow up on a complaint, the ACLU’s Rebecca Farmer wrote, “Travis and his mom initially reached out and had some contact with the OCC, but they decided not to continue on that path.”
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in California’s Northern U.S. District Court. Read it below: