It’s been nearly two years since Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash were restocking their Tiburon clothing boutique when they received an unsolicited late-night visit from Tiburon and Belvedere police officers who wanted Khalif to provide ID and proof he owned the store.
The contentious 10-minute encounter, caught on video, thrust the Black store owners and Tiburon into the national spotlight, amid claims the police racially profiled the couple. The police left after a white man across the street yelled out his window that Khalif owned the store.
In the days following the August 2020 incident, the video went viral, activists descended upon the town to protest, and the police chief and a sergeant resigned.
Last week, Khalif and Awash, who are married and own the store called Yema, reached a settlement agreement with Tiburon. The town won’t admit wrongdoing, but will pay the couple $150,000 and, more significantly, implement policy changes in the police department.
The reforms include establishing a Citizen’s Advisory Panel, increasing bias training for officers and requiring officers hand out business cards after an interaction with a member of the public.
Khalif and Awash agree the most impactful change is the Citizen’s Advisory Panel, which will provide a forum for police-community interaction. Panel members will also participate in the interviewing process for hiring and promotions in the police department. Either Khalif or Awash will serve on the panel for a three-year term.
“I think the citizen’s advisory committee is important because it will have teeth and mandate,” Khalif said. “This is important to the citizenry in policy matters, and my hope is since the committee will be independent, it will truly represent the people. My hesitation with town- appointed committees is, more often than not, they are just performative.”
Tiburon Police Chief Ryan Monaghan, who was hired after the clash at Yema, believes the reforms in the agreement will bring substantive benefits to the entire community. His goal is for people to feel they were treated in a fair, equitable and professional manner during interactions with police.
“One of our valued business owners in town didn’t feel that way, and they perceived the contact as being targeted,” Monaghan said. “We looked at this as an opportunity to collaborate with our community to see how we could do better.”
The morale at the Tiburon Police Department has suffered since August 2020. Monaghan points out that everybody lost in the incident, including his police officers.
“In the aftermath, we received disparaging, obscene emails and phone calls, with people yelling at my staff and calling them every name in the book,” Monaghan said.
Still, Monaghan says officers are working hard to serve the community. The Tiburon police recently participated in a community project, initiated by the department, where they met with residents from different backgrounds to hear their unique perceptions about policing.
Khalif and Awash have also received hate mail and disturbing phone calls. Worse yet are the face-to-face interactions in their store. In a recent incident, an angry white man came into Yema and asked why all the mannequins in the store are Black. People have told the couple to leave Tiburon.
“How can we advocate for change if we pack up and go away?” Awash asked. “That doesn’t solve anything. It’s not just about Yema and me; it’s about bringing real change that is going to live after us.”
One thing has already changed for Khalif and Awash. Prior to the confrontation at their store, Khalif and Awash had been stopped by Tiburon and Belvedere police on at least five occasions, according to Charles Bonner, a civil rights attorney representing the couple.
Khalif and Awash confirm that they haven’t been stopped since the August 2020 incident.
More work is still ahead for Khalif and Awash in their quest for equity for Black and brown people. Awash likens it to a marathon and says their struggle is ongoing.
Early last year, the couple filed a claim for $2 million directly with Tiburon and Belvedere but ultimately chose to forego filing a lawsuit in federal court, instead opting to focus on effecting change in policing practices.
During the conflict on Aug. 21, 2020, Officer Jeremy Clark, of the Belvedere Police Department, kept his hand on his holstered gun, which struck fear into the couple.
“Putting your hand on the gun is excessive force pursuant to a stop,” Bonner said. “In order to analyze that, the stop has to be for reasonable suspicion of a crime. Was it reasonable to suspect they were committing a crime? Burglars don’t go into a store and turn all the lights on. There are pictures of Yema and Hawi all over the store. There was no rational basis for any of those three cops to assume a crime was being committed.”
“But only one had their hand on the gun and acted like he was going to shoot someone. A cop who uses force on a person must use a subjective standard: What would a reasonable officer have done? Ipso facto, by that very fact, the Belvedere cop was unreasonable, while the other two officers weren’t. That is why Belvedere is on the hook.”
Although Bonner is prepared to file a lawsuit against Belvedere on behalf of Khalif and Awash, the couple hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to proceed. They would prefer to resolve the issues with Belvedere directly.
“You can’t hold your gun when someone hasn’t done anything,” Awash said. “Yema got lucky they didn’t shoot and kill him. Belvedere recognizing this and changing policy is really, really important.”
At the time of publication, the Belvedere mayor, city manager and police chief had not responded to requests for an interview.
Despite Belvedere’s apparent refusal to address the unfortunate confrontation and the lingering trauma it has caused the couple, Khalif and Awash say they will keep moving forward with their positive messages. Khalif, who is from Kenya, and Awash, from Ethiopia, will be donating a portion of the monetary award they received from Tiburon to educate orphans in their home countries. They also donate 20% of Yema’s sales to the cause.
Khalif and Awash will continue their fight for equity, diversion and inclusion, especially for Black and brown people. It is their hope that the settlement agreement with Tiburon can serve as a model for other communities.
“We are business owners and have a platform,” Awash said. “The larger community that truly needs these policy changes doesn’t have access to a platform. These policy changes will humanize the Black and brown people living in the community and humanize the cops.”