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3 black Airbnb guests questioned by police plan lawsuit

The Police Department in Rialto, California, said it received notice of legal action by the three, who were leaving an Airbnb rental when a neighbor called police.
by Kiara Alfonseca and Associated Press /  / Updated 

Three black filmmakers plan to sue a police department in Southern California after being falsely accused of burglary by a neighbor while leaving an Airbnb rental with their luggage.

The three claim that the response by the Rialto Police Department to what they say was a racially motivated 911 call on April 30 — including seven cop cars and a helicopter — was excessive.

The white neighbor of the Airbnb rental owners did not recognize them as they put their suitcases into their car, and called the police thinking they were thieves.

The three were accompanied by a fourth renter who was white, but the 911 caller only identified "three suspicious black people stealing stuff," according to the group's attorney Jasmine Rand.

Rand is known for her role in representing the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice — two young black men and one black child who were killed by police.

The Rialto police received notice of the pending legal action on Monday. The department argues that the officers' response was polite and appropriate.

"Too many have suffered and died because of 'misunderstandings,'" Donisha Prendergast, one of the Airbnb renters — who happens to be a granddaughter of music legend Bob Marley — told NBC News. Her posts on social media have now gone viral.

Kells Fyffe-Marshall, another one of the renters, wrote in an Instagram post that she, Prendergast and the third black renter, Komi-Oluwa Olafimihan, were surrounded by seven police cars and told to put up their hands. Police told them that a helicopter was tracking them and an officer accused them of lying about Airbnb, she said.

Fyffe-Marshall said the police told her that the 911 caller thought they were suspicious because the renters did not wave at the caller as she watched them pack the car from her window. Fyffe-Marshall, who makes films about social injustices against people of color, describes the incident as "hurtful."

"I never thought I would become the subject — a black woman held against my will because I didn't wave to a white woman when I left an Airbnb," said Fyffe-Marshall in a statement.

The encounter is the latest example of friction between law enforcement and minorities because of a call to 911. Last month, two black men in Philadelphia were arrested after a Starbucks employee called police because they hadn't bought anything.

Also in April, two Native American brothers on a tour of Colorado State University were questioned aggressively by police after a parent called to report her unease over their presence. Before that, in Pennsylvania, a white golf club co-owner and his father called police on five black women who they say were playing too slowly.

Georgetown University law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler, who wrote the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men," says African-Americans bear the brunt of proving their innocence no matter how mundane the activity.

"The standard for an extreme law enforcement response to black people is very low," he said. "All you have to do is be waiting in a Starbucks or playing golf in Pennsylvania, or now, moving your luggage out of an Airbnb rental. That's literally all you have to do."

Rialto police pushed back, saying in a news release that officers were polite during the 22-minute interaction. The caller did not recognize the vehicle or the people, police said.

Lt. Dean Hardin said it is standard for a helicopter to monitor the scene for a residential burglary in progress, in case someone leaves the house before police can get there.

"We didn't detain anybody, we didn't put anyone in handcuffs, we didn't point any weapons at anybody," he said. "We actually allowed them pretty free movement about the scene, so it's a pretty mild response to a situation."

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