Earlier this month, Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies pulled over a gold Cadillac DeVille they suspected was stolen. When they realized it wasn’t, they released the family they had detained and cleared the call.
For deputies, it was a routine handling of a high-risk call. For the Citrus Heights family – ordered out of the car at gunpoint and into the back of patrol cars as a helicopter circled overhead – it was traumatizing.
“I don’t know where they all came from, but a dozen officers got out with all their weapons ready to shoot,” said Judith Chapman, who had been on her way home with her husband and stepson after a day of shopping. “We were told to raise our hands and get out of the car.”
Chapman alleges racial profiling and excessive force in the deputies’ handling of the incident; sheriff’s officials counter that the stop was handled appropriately and according to procedure.
The incident allows a glimpse into a process that few on the right side of the law experience, and shows the tension that can arise between law enforcement officers doing their job and the innocent people sometimes caught in the middle.
“People like the lady who is complaining in this case should be upset and should be taken aback by what happened. But, conversely, she probably would be grateful if it was her car that was stolen,” said Lee Dean, who, as Sacramento County’s inspector general until March 2013, acted as independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Department.
“Law enforcement’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s a little messy. And there’s this balance that we all have to acknowledge: Day to day we do live in a free country, but law enforcement has been charged with some certain responsibilities that sometimes conflict with freedom,” Dean said.
The Chapman family’s brush with law enforcement came about 6:30 p.m. on March 14. Judith Chapman, a real estate agent, said her husband, Gilbert, 53, was driving their 2000 gold Cadillac DeVille eastbound on Madison Avenue in Carmichael while she rode in the front passenger seat. Her stepson, Jonathan, 27, who was visiting from Norfolk, Va., was in the back seat.
Judith Chapman said she bought the car last month, so it had a temporary paper plate on the windshield.
Chapman recalled stopping at a red light on Madison Avenue and Hackberry Lane. She noticed a sheriff’s patrol car parked on the side of the road. Soon, the deputy was behind them with his lights flashing.
Unbeknownst to the family, the deputy had just heard a report of a stolen gold Cadillac DeVille heading east on Madison Avenue, according to Sacramento County sheriff’s Sgt. Lisa Bowman.
On a California Highway Patrol channel the K-9 officer had been monitoring, a dispatcher said a woman had called in five minutes earlier to report seeing her stolen car at Madison Avenue and Hillsdale Boulevard – just 2 miles west of where the Chapmans were stopped.
Bowman said the officer noted that the Cadillac didn’t have any front or rear license plates, making it impossible for him to confirm whether it was the stolen car in question and increasing interest in the car.
“Given the time delay and location, it is not difficult to assume this may be that same vehicle,” Bowman said. “It is also not uncommon for license plates originally affixed to a vehicle to be removed by the perpetrators once it is stolen.”
Gilbert Chapman pulled off of Madison Avenue onto Appian Way, where his wife said an alarming number of officers surrounded their car with guns drawn. All three members of the Chapman family were searched, handcuffed and placed in separate patrol cars.
Bowman said the K-9 officer called for backup, and four patrol deputies, one sergeant and the sheriff’s helicopter responded. Stolen-vehicle stops are considered high risk because of the unpredictability of the suspects – they often run or lead authorities in pursuits – and the criminal activity often associated with them, including gun possession and drugs.
A CHP car pulled up after the Chapman family had been detained, Bowman said.
Judith Chapman said she didn’t get an explanation about what was happening until she challenged the order to get into a patrol car. When told the sheriff’s deputies were responding to a report of a stolen vehicle, she explained that the car belonged to her. She said she was treated rudely.
She watched as four officers searched her car. When deputies checked the car’s vehicle identification number and realized it wasn’t stolen, the handcuffs were removed and the family was released.
Chapman said her husband was so upset by the incident that she had to take the wheel. Days later, the family was still shaken by the experience. She alleges they were victims of racial profiling: Chapman is white, and her husband and stepson are African American.
“If people are going to get pulled over at gunpoint because they don’t have plates, then that’s a problem,” she said.
Bowman, however, said the deputies followed standard procedure in stopping and investigating a suspected stolen vehicle.
“It wouldn’t matter how many, what gender, race or age of the occupants, they would have been pulled out the exact same way,” said Bowman. “There was nothing uncommon whatsoever.”
She said the sergeant on the call tried to explain the response to Chapman and apologized. Chapman said that didn’t happen and said she plans to file complaints with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We feel that our civil rights were violated, and that’s a federal issue,” said Chapman.
Based on her understanding of the situation, however, Bowman said it appears it was a defensible, if unfortunate, encounter.
“Our patrol officers commonly work in an evolving, reactive environment. They often react to the facts and information they are provided at the time and as the circumstances unfold,” she said. “Unfortunately, in doing so, sometimes innocent people are often caught in the middle of such circumstances.”
In his experience reviewing complaints about the Sheriff’s Department, former Inspector General Dean said he often could understand the perspective of people like the Chapmans.
“You can imagine yourself, if you weren’t familiar with law enforcement and aware of procedures – having guns pointed at you and ordered out of the car (is) a big deal,” he said. “It’s traumatic.”
But he said officers often are doing the best they can, and most tensions can be erased in the field by deputies who take the time to explain what happened. “Sometimes people just need to be heard, and there needs to be some measure of sympathy about what they’ve been through.”
The Sheriff’s Department responded to almost 300,000 calls for service in 2013, and received 189 complaints, Bowman said. Of those, four complaints – 2 percent – were sustained by internal affairs investigators.
The department reported nearly identical numbers in 2012. One of the complaints in 2012 and three in 2013 alleged racial profiling; three of those four complaints were not sustained and one is still pending, Bowman said.
Francine Tournour, head of Sacramento city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability, said she tries to help people understand the perspective of law enforcement officers they believe have wronged them. Often, a perception of excessive force stems from officers’ understandable efforts to keep themselves and those around them safe, she said.
“(Officers) would rather do a little more and be safe and walk away from it than be wrong and get shot,” Tournour said. “Sometimes that infringes on the rights of the people they’re stopping, even if the officers’ actions are justified.”