A black Gunn High School student filed a federal lawsuit against a white Palo Alto police officer last week, claiming the officer "shook him violently" last year before giving him a ticket for skateboarding to school without a helmet.
Lawyers for Jameel Douglas, who was 14 years old at the time, allege Officer Brad Kilpatrick violated Jameel's civil rights by using excessive force, caused the student emotional distress and targeted him because of his race. The long-anticipated lawsuit also accuses the city of failing to properly train the officer.
The lawsuit comes as the local police department is fighting allegations it mistreats suspects of color. Two Asian-American officers are currently standing trial for felony assault charges, for beating and pepper spraying a black man in July 2003.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Bill Mayfield defended officer Kilpatrick and the city, saying witnesses' accounts of the incident varied and that race was not a factor.
"We don't think it's a good use of the courts and of city resources to have to deal with this claim," he said.
The lawsuit centers around an encounter Jameel had with Kilpatrick on March 3, 2004. Jameel, then a Terman Middle School student, was skateboarding to school without a helmet that morning when Kilpatrick approached on his motorcycle.
The lawsuit claims that Kilpatrick picked up Jameel "in a fit of rage," shocking and horrifying those who witnessed the episode.
The officer allegedly said the student would "end up in Hillcrest," a San Mateo County juvenile detention facility. Palo Alto is located in Santa Clara County, but East Palo Alto, which has a much larger population of black residents, is in San Mateo County.
Even if Jameel's lawyers' portrayal of the event is accurate, Mayfield argued, the officer still didn't use enough force to justify a federal lawsuit.
The City of Palo Alto earlier denied the high school freshman's claim that sought more than $25,000 in damages. The lawsuit, filed on Friday, seeks no specific dollar amount.
Attorney Andrew Pierce, who is representing Jameel, said on Friday that the lawsuit's timing is unconnected to the unrelated, ongoing criminal trial, which is expected to wrap up next week.
However, the lawsuit notes "the city permitted and tolerated a pattern and practice of unreasonable use of force by police officers," and, as a result, "officers are more likely to use excessive or unreasonable force."
The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office did investigate the allegations soon after the incident, but decided against filing criminal charges. Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu argued at the time that the officer was looking out for Jameel's safety by ensuring he wore a helmet, and noted that some witnesses saw the student try to get away.
Jameel, who did not speak with investigators, is the son of Donette Douglas, whose fiancÈ is former public defender Aram James.
"We're eager to get into court," said James, the local police department's most ardent critic. "I think we're going to get some justice ultimately."