What Can Happen If You're Black, Wear a Hoodie and Buy a Muffin in Aurora

What Can Happen If You're Black, Wear a Hoodie and Buy a Muffin in Aurora
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The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has filed a lawsuit against two Aurora police officers who allegedly ordered a man eating a muffin at a local coffee shop to leave because he was black and wore a hoodie.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU's state branch, who's part of the legal team pushing the complaint, states the matter simply: "This is a case where our client" — Omar Hassan, a man of Ethiopian descent — "is a victim of unjustifiable racial profiling."

In addition, Silverstein suggests that Hassan's experiences aren't unique. "From our point of view," he says, "we've seen Aurora police officers named in incident after incident, accused of mistreating persons of color and violating their constitutional rights. And we've seen the department repeatedly failing to hold their officers accountable."

The Aurora Police Department declined to comment on the suit, which is accessible below.

The incident took place on the morning of March 16, 2016, at the Caribou Coffee branch located at 13700 East Colfax Avenue. Here's how Silverstein describes what happened.

"Our client went into the coffee shop after work," he notes. "He was wearing a hoodie and work clothes. He went to the counter, ordered a muffin, bought it and sat down to eat it. Then two police officers" — Machelle Williby and Lisa Calcamuggio, the two named defendants — "came over to him with their hands on their guns."

click to enlarge A photo of Omar Hassan supplied by the ACLU of Colorado. - ACLU OF COLORADO
A photo of Omar Hassan supplied by the ACLU of Colorado.
ACLU of Colorado
After telling Hassan to leave, "our client asked why," Silverstein continues. "They said, 'Your kind of business is not welcome here.' He asked, 'Who says?' They gestured over toward the counter to indicate management. But we have a signed affidavit from the manager, who remembers the day and said the cops did that on their own. Management never requested it."

The affidavit, signed by Andrew Thompson, the manager on duty at the shop on the 16th, is quoted in the complaint. The excerpt reads: "Neither I nor anyone working at the store that morning reported anything about [Mr. Hassan] or asked that he be escorted from the property. I did not see him escorted out. The officer did not speak to me about the customer before escorting him out. I only heard that he was escorted out from the officer after the fact."

The matter didn't end there. Once Hassan was outside the restaurant, the suit maintains, he thew away the muffin in disgust and walked toward his vehicle as officers Williby and Calcamuggio called for backup. In short order, two male officers arrived and began searching the area, apparently for him. According to the document, "Mr. Hassan did not feel free to leave his car for fear of the potential actions of the officers, including defendants."

Although Hassan wasn't charged with a crime, he filed a complaint with the Aurora Police Department over his treatment. But to Silverstein's knowledge, neither Williby nor Calcamuggio was disciplined.

"The officers had no grounds, no basis, no legitimate authority to order our client to leave the coffee shop," he stresses. "It's an apparent case of law enforcement stereotyping and racial profiling that the Aurora Police Department should have been willing to deal with when they received a complaint. But their secret internal investigation has apparently exonerated the officers, though Aurora declines to share with us any of the documents from the investigation. So it's impossible for us to know on what grounds they decided the police had done nothing wrong."

click to enlarge The Caribou Coffee branch where the incident took place. - GOOGLE MAPS
The Caribou Coffee branch where the incident took place.
Google Maps
Silverstein cites two other recent accusations lodged against Aurora police officers by people of color, both of which we've covered in this space. "You may remember the case of Darsean Kelly. He's the young man who was just walking while black, and the police stopped him and then tased him in the back."

The Kelly suit was filed in December 2016. In July, the City of Aurora paid $110,000 to settle the case.

More recently, Silverstein points out, OyZhana Williams sued three members of the Aurora Police Department over a 2015 incident during which she was roughed up and had her head stomped in the parking lot of a hospital where her boyfriend was being treated for a gunshot wound, apparently because a cop lauded for heroism during the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting didn't like the way she dropped her keys.

In regard to the Hassan episode, Silverstein doesn't know "if there's a policy of checking out black men wearing hoodies in restaurants. But there does seem to be a pattern of Aurora police officers being accused of mistreating people of color, and there's certainly a pattern of Aurora refusing to divulge how they investigate accusations of police misconduct. I think they ought to be considering some effective anti-bias training for their officers. They could certainly use some independent civilian review to examine accusations of police misconduct, and they could certainly stand a good dose of transparency as to how they handle those accusations."

The Caribou matter "deprived our client of the equal benefit of being able to walk into a business and be treated like a respected customer," he argues. "And because the police department has declined to deal effectively with our client's complaint, he needs to vindicate his rights in federal district court."

Click to read the complaint: Hassan v. Williby and Calcamuggio.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts