Shopping while black

A family shopping trip turned into a nightmare when police arrested Avon Holmes, alleges a pending lawsuit

Avon and Jennifer Holmes with toddlers Justin and Austin.

Avon and Jennifer Holmes with toddlers Justin and Austin.

Courtesy Of Avon Holmes

After spending a long night at his auditing job for a local property management firm, Avon Holmes and his wife, Jennifer, decided to go get some groceries. It was a brisk February day, recounts Holmes’ lawyer, Terri Keyser-Cooper, so Avon was dressed in a kelly-green sweater, jeans, tan cowboy boots and a blue bandanna tied around his neck.

Holmes drove to the store with their two preschoolers, Justin and Austin, in the back seat. Jennifer has epilepsy and has never been allowed to get a driver’s license. The family headed out to the Albertson’s store in the Keystone Shopping Center.

As Holmes’ car pulled into the parking lot, a haggard-looking white male on a bike approached yelling racial slurs, and then quickly rode off. Holmes was upset by this unprovoked attack. Noticing a security guard entering the store, Holmes decided to report the incident. He stopped the security guard, Edward Rankin, who seemed disinterested. He did not question Holmes about the man’s description. Holmes felt blown off, but he went on with his shopping, Keyser-Cooper writes in a civil complaint filed in United States District Court.

Holmes had no idea that he had just put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When Holmes approached with his complaint, security guard Rankin had been entering the store to call police and report what he thought were gunshots in the area. Rankin told the dispatcher that shots had been fired, but he did not have a description of the vehicles involved or of a shooter. When asked if the people involved were still in the area, he said, “No, I don’t know.”

The dispatcher continued to press for a description and asked if the individuals involved had gone into the store. Instantly, Rankin recalled the last person he saw go into the store: Holmes. Rankin said that a black man wearing a blue bandanna, who had complained of being harassed in the parking lot, had stopped him.

“That could possibly be him,” he said. “I did not get a good look at the faces.”

He repeated again that he did not see anyone shooting, but continued giving the dispatcher a description of Holmes and saying that maybe the report of harassment was a ploy to divert his attention. The dispatcher quickly sent 12 officers to the scene.

While Holmes shopped, snipers were getting into position on the roof, the Keystone freeway exits were closed and an ambulance had arrived on the scene. Holmes walked to his car, his arms laden with groceries and proceeded to load his purchases into the trunk. Officers Jay Brown and Chris Alexander both spotted Holmes at the same time.

“Get your ass on the ground!” Officer Alexander yelled. “Get on the ground now, or we’ll kill you!”

Jennifer got out of the passenger side of the car, trying to figure out what was going on. Immediately, Officer Brown ordered her to get on the ground. Jennifer asked what she had done wrong, but Brown continued to demand that she lie down. Holmes started yelling to the officers that his wife shouldn’t lie down because she was epileptic and might have a seizure.

The complaint recorded the officer’s response: “Lady, I don’t care what your problem is, you’re going to jail for not listening.”

Jennifer, crying and in fear of what the officers might do, decided to get on the ground. In the back seat of the family car, the boys, ages 2 and 4, watched as police officers, guns drawn, surrounded their parents, relates the brief. Holmes was handcuffed and dragged to his feet. Someone noticed Jennifer was having a seizure. She was taken to the waiting ambulance where another officer tried to handcuff her as she was being treated, the complaint states.

Holmes was searched. No weapons were found. A lieutenant ordered Holmes’ handcuffs removed, as there was no evidence that he’d been involved in the shooting. There was no evidence of a shooting even taking place. The Holmes family was told that they could leave.

Later, when security officer Rankin was giving his report, he remembered many details of the alleged shooting that he failed to mention to the 911 dispatcher. He said he saw a black man in the passenger seat of a blue car pointing his hand out of the car. He also said he saw a white female driving with a child and a dog in the back seat. He gave all of this information after clearly seeing Holmes and his family.

“Can you imagine being harassed by someone, reporting it, and then being accused of a completely separate crime?” said Keyser-Cooper. “This whole thing is an outrage! If a little old man had stopped Rankin to ask for the time, would he suddenly be a suspect? I don’t think so. [Holmes] was obviously targeted because he was black.”

Some area civil activists are concerned that the Holmes episode might represent a trend toward racial profiling.

“We feel that there are credible complaints coming in from credible people having experienced being treated unfairly when they haven’t done anything,” said Lonnie Feemster, president of the Reno/Sparks NAACP.

Dennis Zarubi, the local branch manager of Pinkerton Security, said: “We don’t do profiling. There is no call for it. In our eight hours of training, we teach guards to treat people as individuals, not as a race.” Security guard Edward Rankin is no longer employed by Pinkerton, Zarubi said.

“Whether it is true or not, we get lots of complaints from how minorities are being treated by the police department,” said Kendall Stagg, the Northern Nevada Coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This entire case calls for a need for sensitivity training for the Reno Police Department and the other agencies involved.”

In August, Keyser-Cooper filed a motion for preliminary injunction against the city of Reno, 911 dispatchers Monica Ross and Adrienne Openlander, Reno police officers Chris Alexander and Jay Brown, Pinkerton’s Inc., Keystone Square LTD. and security guard Edward Rankin. A lawsuit is pending. Keyser-Cooper said she’s not received word as to when the matter might have its day in court.

“The likelihood of continued misconduct on the part of RPD is so high because the city of Reno and its police officers persist in believing that their conduct towards the Holmes family was lawful and appropriate,” the brief said. “After investigation, the police’s conduct was ratified at the highest level.”

In order to prevent any claims of mistreatment or improper conduct, police officers routinely carry tape recorders to capture what occurs during their beat. Everything is recorded. Usually.

“In the case of Avon Holmes, all recorders were turned off. Very suspicious,” Feemster said. “It would seem that at least someone would have their recorder on, but no one did.”

Recently, when asked about this incident, Reno Deputy Chief Jim Weston said: “I don’t even know why Avon Holmes is a story at all.”

The day after the incident at the Keystone Shopping Center, Holmes went in front of the Reno City Council demanding a review of the mistreatment. His speech was televised on the local access station.

After the broadcast, a woman called the police to say that Holmes had harassed her in December at a local grocery store. She hadn’t filed a complaint at the time of the alleged attack, but she did after she saw him on TV. Holmes was arrested for harassment. The police department did an extensive search for outstanding warrants or prior arrests, this time turning up an outstanding warrant stemming from a traffic citation in Oakland. California officials chose not to extradite Holmes for the traffic offense. He was released on bail shortly afterward.