D’Paris “DJ” Williams spent his day the same way many San Franciscans did Nov. 15, watching young Miles Scott, aka Batkid, rescue a damsel in distress to the cheers of thousands.
Williams, 20, then biked from downtown to visit relatives in the Valencia Gardens housing project in the Mission District. It was there, as the nation continued cooing over the caped crusader, that two plainclothes police officers pulled Williams onto the ground. Police said they initially pursued Williams into the housing complex because he was coasting his bike on the sidewalk, a traffic violation.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Neighbors quickly came to Williams’ defense, fists at the ready. The ensuing brawl was recorded on video and quickly went viral nationally. Fast forward two weeks and two protests later, and Williams’ family has joined with prominent attorney John Burris to sue the SFPD, for allegedly using excessive force and violating Williams’ civil rights.
“The violence is the grave matter of the entire thing, and the illegal detention and subsequent arrests,” Burris told the Guardian. He has not yet filed suit.
As the video went viral, allegations of improper police conduct abounded. Police are now crying foul, too. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr called for wearable cameras for police officers, saying he’s confident that it would clear police of wrongdoing.
The question that haunts the community around Valencia Gardens, though, is not only about the use of force. Residents wonder if the police profiled Williams because he’s black.
Was he really stopped because of a traffic violation? Or was that just legal justification for the police to search him on suspicion that he was carrying a firearm or controlled substance, which would amount to profiling?
TWO SIDES OF THE STORY
D’Paris’ stepfather, Frank Williams, told the Guardian that his son was in disbelief immediately following the ordeal.
The elder Williams related the story DJ told him.
While walking to his grandma’s house in Valencia Gardens, DJ walked with his bike for a bit, then sat on it and scooted it with his feet. Some people he didn’t recognize got out of a car nearby, calling “hey come here, come here.” As Williams stood in the doorway, “They grabbed him by his jeans and pulled him out,” the elder Williams said. “They kept pulling on him, and he’s saying ‘What did I do? What did I do?’ as they started punching him on the side of the face, and dragged him out.”
The police shared a different version of the story with reporters.
The plainclothes officers, who remain unnamed, identified themselves as police and displayed their badges, according to the SFPD account. When Williams “failed to comply” with their orders to stop, they caught up to him and attempted to detain him.
“He became combative, resisted arrest, and multiple subjects came out of that residence and formed a hostile crowd around the officers,” said Officer Gordon Shyy, a SFPD spokesperson.
When the Guardian asked him to explain the officers’ actions in more detail, Shyy said he didn’t have that information. The SFPD did not make the incident report public, but Shyy had a copy.
The reason the brawl broke out remains under dispute, but what happened next was captured on video and posted to the Internet.
As the plainclothes officers tried to subdue Williams, a neighbor took a swing with a cane that nearly hit an officer. A policeman threw haymaker punches at a neighbor as bystanders shouted them down. In the end, Williams and three of his cousin’s neighbors were taken into custody.
Williams’ sister was there, too, watching them fight as she held her newborn.
Video shows the four men who were detained scraped and bloodied, and Williams was bleeding and bruised as the officers took him in. All were taken to San Francisco General Hospital.
Williams was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon, which Shyy said was for biting an officer. He was then discharged pending further investigation, the District Attorney’s Office told the Guardian. Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the city doesn’t usually pursue such cases.
“The reason you discharge cases is, you can’t prove them,” Adachi explained.
While Shyy maintained that the officers pulled him aside because he was riding his bicycle on a sidewalk, those officers were outside Valencia Gardens for a particular reason. Part of a SFPD squad called the Violence Reduction Team, their unit is tasked with pulling guns off the streets.
“What were these guys doing stopping DJ for a traffic violation?” wondered Travis Jensen, a friend of Williams who publicized the incident on Instagram. It’s a fair question: The Violence Reduction Team isn’t exactly known for pulling over bicyclists.
AK47s, .45 handguns, semi-automatics, guns hidden in waistbands. That’s what the Violence Reduction Team seeks to do away with when they hit the streets.
SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy credits the team with a drop in citywide homicides. It has certainly been busy.
The Violence Reduction Team arrested 20 suspects during last year’s Fleet Week, a press release from the SFPD announced, touting the unit’s success. That Halloween, they nabbed six more guns. Just last month they made 10 arrests, pulling even more firearms off the street, Shyy said.
“The VRT officers were on their regular patrol for their shift, it had nothing to do with the Batkid event,” Shyy told the Guardian. “VRT is tasked to patrol high crime areas and conduct pro-active policing to prevent violent crimes from occurring.”
When asked directly if the officers stopped Williams because they suspected he had a gun, Shyy repeated that they lawfully detained him because he illegally rode his bicycle on the sidewalk. “If officers lawfully detain a person, and can articulate a cursory pat search of that person, they may do so,” he said.
When officers took Williams to the ground they did search him for weapons.
The Guardian contacted former Tiburon Police Chief Peter Herley, who previously served as president of the California Police Chief’s Association, to ask if plainclothes officers responsible for seizing guns would take the time to cite a bicyclist for a traffic violation.
“Generally they don’t do it, because it may blow their cover,” he said. “If the violation was grievous enough, maybe. Usually a plain clothes unit wouldn’t do it.”
Adachi put it another way. When a person is stopped for an infraction, “the expectation is there’s a ticket drawn up and a person is sent on their way.”
Based on what Shyy read to us from the police report, the officers at the scene seemed to enter the situation believing Williams could be armed. “Williams continued to resist by pushing his upper body against the sidewalk and tried to get to his feet. Williams was unhandcuffed and unsearched at this point. From my knowledge and experience I know this is a high crime area and people in this area often carry weapons. I believed if Williams were able to free himself from us, he may attempt to access a weapon.”
Ultimately the officers only found two things on D’Paris Williams: juice and a cupcake.
SHAKEN, BUT NOT DETERRED
Williams’ cousin Dave lives in Valencia Gardens. Dave, who refused to provide his last name because he feared retaliation, says Williams rode his bike to a Goodwill store that day to apply for a job. Dave, 36, invites some of his younger distant cousins, including Williams, over for what he calls a “positive hype.”
“They’re over here like every day. We have a big family, we’re very lovable,” he said.
Williams’ sixth grade science teacher, Norm Mattox, told the Guardian DJ was in school at City College, known as a young man with prospects.
“He’s someone we think can get out of the neighborhood, get out of the projects,” he said.
That’s why D’Paris was in disbelief too, his stepfather told us. “I did question my son about it. Why would they follow you? Explain this to me,” the elder Williams told the Guardian. He fears his son was targeted for being the wrong color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
That’s why Burris took the case. “The young people need to know there is a place to go, that you don’t have to accept this level of brutality by an officer,” he said. “The legal issues themselves, are an illegal detention, illegal arrest, and use of excessive force. [These are] federal civil rights violations.”
D’Paris took that to heart. The younger Williams told his father something had to change, that he was determined that something good had to come from this.
“He kept repeating it. ‘This has got to stop. Got to stop. Got to stop,'” the elder Williams said.
“It makes a dad proud to hear that.”