Community activist tells of night of terror
• City refuses to release 911 call.
A Saturday drive for Chinese takeout turned into a terrifying night in Menlo Park, said Vicki Smothers.
Ms. Smothers, who co-founded a treatment program for addicts and was inducted in 2003 into the San Mateo County Women's Hall of Fame for community service, described the ordeal.
While driving along Ringwood Avenue around 8 p.m. on April 9, a dark SUV, possibly a Ford Expedition, started tailgating her car, she said. The vehicles stopped alongside each other at a light on Ravenswood Avenue and Laurel Street. The other driver shouted racial epithets at Ms. Smothers, who is African American.
The tirade continued, she said, even after the light changed. "I was thinking, oh, let his light change, I'm going straight, he's turning. But he pulled out of the turn lane to cut my car off," Ms. Smothers said. He mixed obscenities with threats to kill her.
When she again tried to drive away, the SUV blocked her car a second time -- sideways, keeping the license plate out of sight. A Caucasian man got out brandishing a stick or club as he walked toward Ms. Smothers.
"I said, 'aw, shut up' when he said, 'I'm going to lynch you, you black ****, and that really set him off," she said. Ms. Smothers found her cellphone dead when she tried to call 911.
A woman riding in the SUV kept her gaze fixed straightforward as cars drove around the shouting man. Ms. Smothers drove in reverse down the street until finally, her assailant got back in his car, made a U-turn, and turned right on Laurel Street.
She drove to Su Hong restaurant on El Camino Real. By that time her cellphone had picked up enough of a charge to call 911.
But when Sgt. Bob Simpson of the Menlo Park Police Department arrived at the restaurant, the night took another turn for the worse. "Before I was able to say five words, he said, 'So you came here first to order your dinner? I just find it kind of funny that you would come in here and order dinner if it was such a high impact incident,"" she said.
She asked for an apology for being treated like she had done something wrong. When none was forthcoming, Ms. Smothers went to the police department to speak to the watch commander. That night it was Sgt. Simpson, so she returned the next day to talk to Sgt. Matthew Ortega instead.
Sgt. Simpson did not respond to requests for comment from the Almanac.
Ms. Smothers, 60, co-founded East Palo Alto's Free At Last, a treatment program for addicts.
People working within the recovery community tend to be familiar with police procedures, so when Ms. Smothers wonders whether the man who harassed her was in law enforcement, it sounds like a credible question.
"His mannerisms. The way he stopped me, the way he was blocking me. The way he got out of the car holding the object," created that impression, she said. "He had on a dark blue shirt, with something yellow, like an emblem. The way he cursed at me, the way he got out of the car, it was like he could get away with this. Most people wouldn't do that in the middle of a busy street."
He stood about 6 feet tall, and was muscular, clean shaven, and had close-cropped brownish hair, according to her recollection.
The Almanac ran into a stonewall after requesting a copy of the 911 call. Calls are not automatically exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act, and cities such as Mountain View and Palo Alto release calls on a case-by-case basis, as does San Mateo County, but Menlo Park flatly refused.
We have a policy of not releasing 911 calls, City Attorney Bill McClure said on behalf of the police department.
The city then refused to allow Ms. Smothers to listen to her own call, with Mr. McClure calling it inappropriate "in light of the City's position regarding non-disclosure of the recording."
They also refused to identify the dispatcher who handled the call.
The Almanac discovered that in 2002, the city did release a call despite its policy -- as a courtesy, according to the couple involved. The couple, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of repercussions, had an unfortunate encounter with police after a dispatcher mistakenly labeled their call as a domestic violence situation. The woman said attorney Dan Siegel played the tape and gave them a recording, which they later handed to Mark Martel, a lawyer representing David McBay in a lawsuit for police brutality.
Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspapers Publishers Association, said Ms. Smothers is legally entitled to the recording, just as state law requires disclosure of witness statements and case reports to all parties in a case unless doing so harms another victim, a witness, or the investigation.
Mr. McClure cited none of those exceptions in denying the request.
"This creates even more frustration because it highlights the fact that they can pick and choose whether to release the tape and to whom," Mr. Ewert said. "They are misusing the exemption which was designed to protect the integrity of the investigation, subsequent investigations, and witnesses to secrete information. It is just nefarious."