Three friends detained following 911 call that prompted California police to send squad of vehicles and a helicopter
Police in California sent a helicopter and a squad of cars to detain a group of black friends leaving an Airbnb after a neighbor called 911 and reported them as possible burglars.
The incident, which went viral after one of the detained women posted footage of the encounter, is the latest in a string of high-profile cases of Americans calling law enforcement on people of color engaged in lawful everyday activities.
Three friends were leaving an Airbnb rental on the afternoon of 30 April in Rialto, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, when, they said, a group of police cars quickly surrounded them and told them to put their hands up.
“They informed us that there was also a helicopter tracking us. They locked down the neighborhood and had us standing in the street,” Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, a film-maker, wrote on Facebook, where she also published videos and photos of the police. “At first we joked about the misunderstanding,” she said, but added that “it escalated almost instantly”.
The Rialto police lieutenant Dean Hardin told the Guardian that a neighbor, whom he described as an elderly white woman, called police because she “didn’t recognize the vehicle or the people” and saw them loading a car with suitcases. The department responded to a potential “in-progress residential burglary”, dispatching six cars and a helicopter, he said.
Police said in a statement that officers “immediately established a perimeter while the people drove away. During the course of the 22-minute encounter, police officers determined the people were Airbnb renters and were at the residence as guests.”
Fyffe-Marshall said the situation got worse when a sergeant arrived and said he had never heard of Airbnb, the home-sharing company.
Hardin said other officers were aware of Airbnb and cleared up the confusion and said the department canceled the helicopter before it arrived. Though officers detained the group, police did not use restraints and “allowed them to exit their vehicle”, police said.
“I’m still trying to fully digest the what, why and how of this,” wrote Donisha Prendergast, another woman in the car who is also a film-maker and a granddaughter of the singer-songwriter Bob Marley. “I also am deeply meditating on the why not. Why this should not have happened. Why they should not have reacted with such unnecessary force … Why this is not a simple misunderstanding. Why this neighbour who was so fearful without any justified reason, should not have the power to potentially destroy another life because of the color of her skin.”
Fyffe-Marshall’s post added: “We have been dealing with different emotions and you want to laugh about this but it’s not funny. The trauma is real.”
Similar stories of racial profiling have sparked national backlash in recent weeks. Black Americans have faced law enforcement calls and in some cases arrests and police violence while patronizing a Starbucks, a gym, a golf course and a Waffle House. In New York City, a black former White House staffer said he faced police while moving into a new apartment building after a resident reported an “active burglary”.
Last week, police in Colorado also removed two Native American teenagers on a college campus tour after a parent called 911 saying they looked like “they don’t belong”.
The Rialto incident occurred years after the #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag went viral, with black users of the service sharing stories of racial discrimination, including hosts refusing to rent their homes to them, then accepting white guests.
Rialto police have not named the 911 caller but did name the three people in the car they stopped, in a press release issued Monday. The department also said the Airbnb rental in this case was “unlicensed”, but did not provide further details.
Airbnb did not respond to an inquiry about the status of the rental but said in a statement that the company had “reached out to the victims of this terrible incident to express our sympathy and full support”, adding that although the neighbor who called police was not an Airbnb user, “what happened to our Guests is unconscionable and a reminder of how far we still have to go as a society”.
The women who posted about the incident did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Hardin defended the police department’s response, saying officers had no choice but to show up and investigate the burglary report: “We thought our officers acted professionally and the situation was handled appropriately.”
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