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Tiburon merchants sue Belvedere in racial controversy

The Black owners of a business in Tiburon have filed a $2 million federal lawsuit against Belvedere over the role of one of its officers in a controversial encounter in 2020.

Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash, the married proprietors of the Yema clothing store, allege civil rights violations by the officer.

The couple previously settled a racial profiling claim against Tiburon over the conduct of its officers. The town agreed in April to pay $150,000 and establish a police advisory council.

The new lawsuit, filed Wednesday, lists the defendants as Belvedere, the Belvedere Police Department, former city manager Craig Middleton, police Chief Jason Wu, Officer Jeremy Clark and Nancy Kemnitzer, a City Council member who was mayor when the incident happened.

The suit claims civil rights violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, with specific claims of denial of equal protection, unlawful detention and conspiracy based on race.

The couple’s attorney, David Anderson of Mill Valley, said body cameras and cellphone footage showed a Belvedere police officer unlatching the strap on his service revolver during the interaction.

“The thoughts raced through Yema and Hawi’s minds and both of them sincerely believed that they were about to be shot, possibly killed,” Anderson said. “This particular moment of the 15-or-so-minute unwarranted confrontation still haunts them and likely will for the rest of their lives.”

Khalif declined to comment on Friday.

Belvedere City Manager Robert Zadnik said the city received the complaint and the supporting documents on Thursday afternoon. He said it was too soon for city officials to comment.

The incident happened at about 1 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2020. Khalif, Awash and a friend were inside the store on Main Street when Tiburon police Officer Isaac Madfes approached and asked them for identification.

The officer was later joined by a supervisor, Sgt. Michael Blasi, and Clark. Khalif argued with the police over whether the people inside the store needed to prove their right to be there. The tense standoff ended when a passerpby said, “That’s his store.” The officers left.

In the ensuing controversy, Blasi resigned. The Tiburon police chief, Michael Cronin, also stepped down that year for a retirement he said was long-planned.

The couple filed a $2 million claim against Tiburon. They said they avoided filing a federal civil rights lawsuit because the town agreed to negotiate a settlement.

“It was a very difficult decision for them to pursue legal claims against Tiburon and Belvedere police and elected officials,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately Belvedere officials chose not to participate in voluntary negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable result.”

The lawsuit said Belvedere representatives were invited through their lawyer to participate in the mediation efforts with Tiburon.

“They declined and refused efforts to resolve significant disagreements,” the lawsuit said.

The chief reform under the Tiburon settlement is the establishment of a citizen’s advisory panel to the department. The panel is intended as a community engagement body to provide recommendations to the police chief, receive citizen complaints and participate in the hiring and interview process for police officers. Khalif and Awash were awarded one-year terms on the panel.

The settlement also requires Tiburon police officers to hand out business cards with identification information following “most interactions.”

The settlement also calls for implementation of a reporting policy related to race/ethnicity, gender and age of searches compliant with the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015. It also increases the frequency of anti-bias training from every five years to every two years.

The program is set to begin in the fall.

“Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash are extremely appreciative and grateful for the willingness of the Tiburon officials to have made some concessions regarding how law enforcement is carried out in Tiburon,” Anderson said.

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