Family to file claim with Sacramento over use of spit mask while police held 12-year-old boy

The city of Sacramento will likely be sued over an April incident in which police officers placed a “spit mask” over a African American boy’s head while they detained him, a video of which went viral internationally.

High-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump, along with lawyers Mark Harris and Dale Galipo, filed a claim Friday against the city over the incident, Crump’s office announced in a news release. A claim is required in California before a lawsuit can be filed against a government entity, the release said.

The claim alleges the city and the police department were negligent in arresting the boy without probable cause and that the incident caused emotional distress on the now 13-year-old boy, identified only as Isaiah, and other members of the family including his sister. The claim, in which the family says the department failed to adequately train its officers, is seeking more than $100,000 in damages.

City spokesman Tim Swanson declined comment Friday morning because the city had not yet been served, he said.

“We hope this sends a clear message that police can no longer degrade and disrespect black and brown children through this barbaric practice,” Crump said in the prepared remarks. “These officers were sworn to serve and protect our children, but instead they ignored Isaiah’s pleas for his mother and his inability to breathe.

“We will continue to seek justice for Isaiah and his family, and for all black and brown people who are harmed, emotionally or physically, at the hands of police.”

The attorneys expect to file a lawsuit in the next 18 months against the city, as well as Paladin, a private security firm, and the owners of the property where the tense incident took place.

Crump’s firm also represented the family of Stephon Clark, the unarmed 22-year-old black man shot to death by Sacramento police in 2018. The Clark shooting led to numerous protests and the arrest of 84 demonstrators in March, as well as more than a year of negative publicity for the city.

The video of Isaiah’s detainment from April 28, which Black Lives Matter activists shared on social media, led to more anger from the African American community over perceived police mistreatment as it went viral nearly a month later.

Police said the boy had been asking for money at a neighborhood carnival and was asked to leave when he ran from a private security guard.

The video showed officers handcuffing the boy shortly after he ran across El Camino Avenue and into the parking lot of a Wienerschnitzel, where he had been chased and held by the guard.

Police released bodycam footage of the incident after its investigation, which deemed the officers acted appropriately.

In the process of detaining him, and as tempers rose from onlookers including the boy’s mother, a spit mask was placed over the boy’s face after he was put chest-down on the ground.

“Let me go, I didn’t do nothing to you,” the boy shouts before calling her a “racist a-- b----,” according to previous Bee reporting.

“Kid spit on me,” the officer says, and later says he spit on her three times, leading to the decision to place a mesh spit mask over his head.

That decision led to the boy shouting, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, take this bag off my head.”

A short time later his mother arrived, crying out, “That’s my baby, what’s going on, he’s only 12 years old.”

The boy was later released to his mother and cited for battery on a officer and resisting arrest, both misdemeanor offenses.

Law enforcement officials say spit masks, also called spit hoods, protect officers when individuals are spitting at them, as the boy is seen doing in the video “multiple times,” according to police. Critics say the devices are dehumanizing, especially when used on children, and should be banned.

Our officers involved in this incident appropriately used a spit mask to protect themselves and defuse the situation,” Chief Daniel Hahn said in a statement at the time. “I am grateful that our officers were willing to proactively intervene when they observed suspicious activity, and that nobody was injured during this encounter.”

The practice of using spit masks is still use, the department said Friday, which also declined to comment on the claim.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.