Bel Air chief defends sending officers to incident in which woman's immigration status was questioned

Bel Air police chief says questioning of Indian-American woman did not rise to level of racial profiling.

Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore is responding to widespread reaction – positive and negative – about his department's handling of a "suspicious incident" call in December in which a woman, who has lived in Bel Air for 30 years, was asked if she was in this country legally.

Moore put out a statement on Facebook Sunday afternoon that outlined, from his officers' perspectives, what happened Dec. 21 when Aravinda Pillalamarri was stopped while walking in Homestead Village.

While he did not justify the officers questioning Pillalamarri's legal status, Moore said police were right to check out a neighbor's concern about suspicious activity -- especially in light of recent thefts and break-ins in the community.

"I needed to set the story straight and to get everything totally out there," Moore said Monday morning.

He also was making clear that those commenting about the issue on the Bel Air Police Facebook page remember to do so with basic civility. He said comments that were not civil, would be removed.

"We encourage open and reasonable dialogue on this topic, however, comments that are rude, vulgar, discriminatory, racist, biased, threatening in nature, will be removed from our social media," Moore wrote in his Sunday post on the department's Facebook page. "It is hoped that open dialogue, such as this, will help everyone realize that hostility and anger are not the key in resolving this issue in our community or country. All officers will begin updated training on bias based/implicit bias within the near future as a result of this incident."

He had no further comment about the incident and referred any questions to his statement.

Bel Air Police have said there is not yet a written report of the incident, only a record in the computer aided dispatch system, or CAD. Moore said Monday that a report is being written.

"Over the past several days the Bel Air Police Department has received a number of calls (positive and negative) concerning a highly charged issue facing our society today," Moore's Facebook statement begins. "This issue involves officer and citizen interaction related to immigration status. Most media outlets who have shared the details of this event have been fair; however, intimate details of the incident were not provided and/or excluded. In an effort to reinforce our belief on transparent policing we are releasing further details of the incident."

Since the Dec. 21 incident, the chief writes, he and other town officials have discussed it with Pillalamarri and her family "who are supportive of our efforts and vision for keeping this community safe."

"We encouraged the Pillalamarris to share their story to reduce the confusion, tension and anxieties that some citizens may experience when interacting with officers, especially for the first time," he wrote.

Pillalamarri, who said she is a naturalized U.S. citizen whose parents came to the U.S. from India, brought her concerns to the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners at a town meeting two weeks ago, after meeting with Moore and Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane to discuss the incident, during which she has said she feels her civil rights were violated.

She understands police have a job to do, Pillalamarri said in interviews late last week, but there's no reason for officers to question whether she lives in this country legally.

She said she was not prepared Monday morning to comment on Moore's latest public statement.

Moore said Friday that any type of profiling by his officers could be grounds for termination.

"I'm trying to foster a level of transparency and trust with the community and I'm not going to employ officers who I think are guilty of such an infraction and crime," Moore said.

The Bel Air chief of 16 months also said he is refining and strengthening the town's policy on what he called unbiased profiling practices and will train not only police officers, but also dispatchers on how to handle calls that involve people of different backgrounds.

What happened in December, when a town officer asked Pillalamarri, who had been stopped on the street because of a call about a suspicious person to the police department, "are you here legally," is not a question police should be asking, Moore said previously.

He was quick to add, however, that he didn't think the incident involving Pillalamarri was racially motivated.

According to Moore's Facebook statement, Bel Air Police received a call the morning of Dec. 21 for a suspicious person, a woman in a beige coat, red hat and carrying a green purse who was walking around the court and seemed to be suspicious, according to a police department CAD report. The caller could not confirm if the woman was black or white, Moore said.

Because there had been recent suspicious activity in the neighborhood, that police were investigating, of packages being stolen and some houses being broken into, Moore's statement continued, the responding officer had "reasonable articulate suspicion" to question Pillalamarri.

"It protects citizens from an officer just questioning a person. There has to be some element there for further investigation," Moore told The Aegis Friday, in explaining why police responded and the officer stopped Pillalamarri.

Residents in the neighborhood were aware of the thefts and that police were investigating, he said.

The responding officer first spoke with the resident reporting the incident, Moore wrote in the Facebook statement, and she said the person had made several laps of the court, walking slowly and looking into cars.

Immediately after she was stopped, according to the chief's statement, Pillalamarri asked the officer if she was stopped for "walking while brown," which the officer immediately denied.

The officer told her the department received a call and was "trying to check her welfare." The officer tried to speak with Pillalamarri but she began to walk away and refused to speak with him or provide ID, the chief wrote.

The officer who responded first, one of the department's younger officers, Moore said, called for a supervisor to respond to the scene when Pillalamarri began questioning the officer.

It was the supervisor who asked Pillalamarri if she was legal, Moore said. Neither officer has been publicly identified by BAPD.

"Upon arrival of the supervisor, he attempted dialogue with Ms. Pillalamarri, including establishing her identity and indicating to her that she was stopped because of a criminal investigation. Ms. Pillalamarri then requested to know if she was under arrest and she was told that she was not. After several attempts to establish her identity, she was asked if she was in the country legally," Moore wrote.

Once she provided her name and police verified it, Pillalamarri was free to go, the chief said.

Discipline not necessary

Moore said Friday the actions of the two officers involved in the incident with Pillalamarri did not require disciplinary actions by the police department.

"The dynamics of this doesn't rise to the level to me there's racial profiling," Moore said. "If there was an indication of racial profiling, he would be terminated."

"Law enforcement has an obligation to investigate any suspicious activity and the Bel Air Police Officers performed that essential function in this incident. The supervisor (seasoned and well respected in his community) engaged in a dialogue that had migrated into a sensitive and socially charged topic. Diffusing and stabilizing highly charged and difficult situations, like this require constant training and practice. Continual training and education improves awareness and relieves anxieties faster. It is also clear that questioning ones immigration status isn't the answer for relieving tension," Moore wrote in his statement.

The officers did a good job of making sure there was no indication of criminal activity going on, he said.

"It's our obligation to do that," he said.

What happened instead, he said, is the officer spoke before he thought about what he was saying.

"There has to be more sensitivity when interacting with someone of a different culture, race, ethnicity," he said.

The officers have, however, received counseling, education and training on improving how they interact with people in situations similar to the one with Pillalamarri.

The training for all officers, which Moore said he would also extend to police dispatchers, would be on "unbiased profiling practices," he said and would include that it's unlawful to detain someone based on race, color, ethnicity, natural origin, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability and that race-based profiling is not cause for stopping, detaining or searching and discriminatory characteristics are not a reason for any law enforcement action.

Moore said he would add to the policy that profiling it's illegal and "could very likely lead to termination."

He pointed out, however, that police have a job to do, which he believes Pillalamarri recognized.

"We get a call for suspicious activity in a community, especially if there's been known criminal activity, it's our obligation to investigate to our fullest ability," Moore said.

 

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