The last light of sunset lingered as Lena August walked down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena after celebrating her mother’s birthday at a Mexican restaurant. As she approached her car, she noticed a law enforcement vehicle double-parked next to hers.
As soon as she turned the ignition, the glare of police lights flashed in her eyes. An officer ordered her out of the car and told her it was wanted in connection with a felony robbery. She could hear the officer as he dialed into the station: “Can you get me the number of Long Beach PD?”
Long Beach? August’s brain started racing. She was in Pasadena, 35 miles from Long Beach. And she lived in L.A. Helpless and confused, she watched as a tow truck saddled up her car and headed for the impound lot. What was this about, she wondered. Unpaid parking tickets? This must be a mistake.
“Then I realized,” she said, “the only time I had been to Long Beach was for a protest.”
August’s plates were flagged by the Long Beach Police Department because they’d been spotted in a parking lot adjacent to the Pike Outlets, a shopping center that was looted and vandalized on May 31, the same day August attended a Black Lives Matter protest nearby.
The crackdown, more than a month after the looting occurred, is the work of Long Beach Police Department’s Looting Task Force, established on June 1 in the aftermath of civil unrest that occurred in proximity to an otherwise peaceful protest. So far, the task force has initiated 14 arrests and filed a host of related charges with the local District Attorney.
But it’s also led to some troubling behavior on the part of law enforcement who appear to be randomly targeting vehicles without any evidence that vehicle owners may have committed a crime. It is unclear how widespread this practice is — LBPD claims they’ve impounded just 12 vehicles so far. But the experiences of two young women, including August, raise disturbing questions about how far law enforcement is willing to go to apprehend looters and whether or not their methods can be seen as intimidation tactics toward those who dared protest police brutality.
“What bothers me most here is the total lack of due process and respect for due process rights,” Cynthia Anderson Barker, the civil rights attorney who represented August, said of the incident. “To impound a vehicle, you have to have probable cause. So to say, ‘They were in the area near the protests,’ well, anyone could have parked their car in that area. This is a total disregard for basic constitutional principles that law enforcement is supposed to abide by.”
Interviews conducted with August and another young woman, Lizzy, who requested anonymity because she fears retaliation by the police, suggest that while LBPD’s methods have led to the apprehension of alleged lawbreakers, the innocent have been swept up, too.
Lizzy was on her way to deliver medication to her sister in San Bernardino County, about 80 miles from downtown Los Angeles, when she was surrounded by seven law enforcement vehicles. The recent graduate of the California State University system, who plans to attend law school, was ordered out of her vehicle at gunpoint. Then the commanding officer on the scene yelled at Lizzy to put her hands up, lift her shirt above her waist and walk backward as a group of officers aimed their handguns at her.
“I started crying. I was having a panic attack,” she said. “I really believed in my heart that I was gonna get shot that day.” Her voice trembled as she sobbed over the phone. As a person of color from an immigrant family, she was terrified. “I really believed I was going to die.”
Lizzy was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car for over an hour while the officers searched her car. The officers told her the reason her vehicle was flagged was because it had been at a crime scene, possibly a homicide. An officer suggested that the flag included the designation “armed and dangerous” — which might explain the guns.
“I kept asking, ‘Why am I being detained?’” Lizzy said. “They told me, ‘Hold on a second, we need to get in contact with the Long Beach Police Department.’ I was like, ‘I don’t live in Long Beach.’ Nothing was ringing a bell, nothing.”
During the time Lizzy was detained, her family and co-workers called her phone repeatedly, frantic about her sudden disappearance. They knew she had been only blocks away from her destination when she seemed to disappear. She said her mother feared she had gotten into a terrible car accident.
Lizzy’s car was impounded that night. It wasn’t until the following day, when the interrogating officer from LBPD inquired as to her whereabouts on May 31, that she consulted her Instagram stories and realized that on that date she had attended a protest in Long Beach.
Both August and Lizzy wondered why their cars were impounded if no arrest warrant had been issued.
“I thought, how could my car be wanted but not me?” August said.
August is a self-assured bartender for a popular L.A. restaurant as well as the daughter of a rabbi. She called the Long Beach Police Department the night of the incident, demanding to know why her car had been taken. When she was told her vehicle was wanted in connection with a felony robbery,
“That’s when the adrenaline left me and my gut dropped and I started to panic,” she said. “I was hyperventilating.”
Both women were so frightened by the disturbing and mysterious encounter with law enforcement, they contacted lawyers. August was told by several attorneys that her case would require a minimum $2500 retainer. Eventually, she connected with Anderson Barker though the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, a collection of attorneys who devote a portion of their time to pro-bono civil rights cases. Lizzy reached out to a college professor, pleading for help.
“I was so embarrassed to contact her,” Lizzy said, explaining that this was the professor who had inspired her to apply to law school.
To get their cars back, both women had to furnish proof of their whereabouts on the day in question, evidence which affirmed they attended the protest, but did not loot. They turned over some combination of text messages, Instagram photos and videos, parking lot receipts or written statements. Anderson Barker persuaded the Pasadena Police Department to waive its fee for August, but she still paid more than $300 to the tow company to release her car. Lizzy was not as lucky: It cost her more than $700, and she said she had to forfeit a scheduled root canal due to the expense.
As with other police departments across the country — including the FBI — the Looting Task Force is gathering video and photo evidence from a variety of sources, including business and residential security cameras, social media, news coverage and their online evidence portal in hopes it will lead them to the perpetrators. But there are also innocent people being targeted in the crackdown, who see this kind of overreach as a form of intimidation.
August claims that when she and her lawyer conferred with Sergeant Malcolm Evans, the officer on her case, he suggested she think twice before attending another protest.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to lecture anyone and I believe in your First Amendment right, but I do want this to be a lesson to you the next time you join one of these protests. Even if you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, how easy it is for you to get caught up and mistaken for someone who’s involved in criminal activity,’” August recalled Sergeant Evans saying.
“I found that to be, I don’t know, a thinly veiled threat,” August said.
Anderson Barker confirmed that the officer made that statement. But a spokesperson for LBPD said, “Unless Ms. August would like to file a complaint, we will not get in the middle of hearsay allegations.”
Although Long Beach Police declined an official interview, a spokesperson for the department said they expect to review up to 200 cases related to civil unrest activity on May 31. However, they did not make clear what legal criteria they were using to identify wanted vehicles. When asked specifically about August’s case, LBPD issued the following statement: “Detectives initially believed that the driver/occupants might have been involved. No evidence of such activity was found through further investigation, and the car was immediately released to its owner with no fees. No other charges are pending in this case.”
August did have to pay tow fees.
As for Lizzy’s case, the spokesperson said, “The owner declined to talk to us, so the car has been released. No other charges are pending in this case.”
But Lizzy told me that even after her car was released, the Long Beach case officer told her she was still under investigation, leaving her to stew in fear and uncertainty. Talking through tears, she said that since the incident, she’s had to take sleeping pills for the first time in her life because she’s afraid something bad is going to happen to her or her family.
“This is what we call collateral damage,” Jorge Gonzalez, the attorney advising on Lizzy’s case, said in an interview. Law enforcement, he said, “thinks they’re justified. And this is what we’re talking about during this reckoning, that it’s time for them to think about what it is they’re doing, trampling through communities with a heavy hand, leaving a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. It’s reckless, if not intentional. They know people are going to suffer consequences.”
The Long Beach police denied that their methods intentionally stoke fear and intimidation.
“This is not a tactic to intimidate individuals,” the spokesperson said via email. “Detectives are following up on leads obtained through evidence and submissions to our online portal. In our commitment to our community, we will follow up all these leads to ensure full prosecution of those involved.”
A healthier alternative, Gonzalez suggested, would be to identify the owners of these vehicles, call them up, ask them questions and request permission to search their cars.
“They did not have probable cause to believe these people were involved in the looting such that they could arrest them,” Gonzalez said. “And if they didn’t have probable cause, what are they doing? Either they’re ‘fishing’ or they’re hoping to put a message out there: Don’t come to our city and get involved in protests.”
Despite the trauma, August said the incident made her hyper-aware of her blessings.
“I’m a Jewish, white girl,” she said. “I come from a certain amount of privilege. I’m not scared of police officers and I’m not perceived as a threat. So they took my car, but if I had been anyone else that interaction might not have gone as well. And what if I didn’t have parents to reach out to that knew lawyers? What if I had gone to the police station and made a statement that implicated myself? And what if I didn’t have $312 dollars to get my car out? It was like a small sliver of a glimpse of the injustices that so many other people in this country face at the hands of the police every single day.”
Two months after Black Lives Matter march, police confiscate cars of peaceful protesters