A three-minute recording made in front of the Intake Grill on South Washington Street during which two Sonora police officers are shown taking photographs of motorcycles has generated a social media outcry and over a million views on Facebook.
Members of the Jus Brothers Motorcycle Club, Mother Lode Chapter, claim to be the victims of unfair profiling by the Sonora Police Department, and have suggested that their rights to freedom of expression and assembly have been infringed.
But Sonora Police Department Acting Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said his officers were gathering information by photographing motorcycle license plates, registrations, and at least one person in the group to “have knowledge of what's happening around us in the community.”
Bryan Davies, a member of the Jus Brothers Mother Lode Chapter, said he believes the police action was wrong because club members were not breaking the law.
“We are not gangsters. We are not starting any problems. We don't have any legal issues with Sonora police,” Davies said. “We are going to stand up for our rights. As Americans we feel that is unjust.”
VanderWiel said that the actions undertaken by Sgt. Curtis Hankins of the Sonora Police Department, which were officer-initiated and not the result of a service call, was not part of a specific investigation into the Jus Brothers Motorcycle Club, but noted “there doesn’t need to be an active investigation for intelligence gathering.”
Davies said the Intake Grill, formerly known as Hot Shotz Sports Bar and Grill, was hosting a public bike night May 8 about 7 p.m. when the police officer was observed parking at the end of the street and approaching a row of about a dozen motorcycles parked in front of the restaurant.
“It's a completely innocuous event, its a community event, it's a biker event,” Davies said. “You're creating crime where none existed.”
VanderWiel said the motorcycles and the club members were in public view, and the registration checks and intelligence gathering were justified in conjunction with the supervisory role of the police agency.
“This is not the first time we’ve used this strategy to gather intelligence,” he said.
The crux of the online dispute over the recording has been whether the Sonora police officer’s actions constituted an illegal act of profiling or harassment, and with the designation of the motorcycle club as a gang.
In the recording, the aggressive tone between both parties seems to escalate. Hankins, in response to a person’s question about whether he will check every vehicle on the street, said “only outlaw motorcycle gangs, yes.”
Just before that, Hankins is threatened by at least one off-camera person.
“You know what would be really funny? If you guys took those badges off then came back over here. Then see what [expletive] happens,” the voice said.
VanderWiel said the department was not specifically identifying the Jus Brothers motorcycle club as a problem, but noted “we’re concerned about any element that could eventually turn out to be a threat to public safety.”
Mark Ewing of Calaveras County, president of the Jus Brothers Motorcycle Club, Mother Lode Chapter, said the group was “a motorcycle club and not a gang.”
“We are for the community of Sonora. We are for commerce and business and making it a better place to live,” he said.
Davies said he believes profiling and harassment of motorcycle clubs in Sonora is a prevalent and repeated issue and he regrets the hostile tone of the recording.
“That tone was not needed, but it wasn't like this was the first time we ever had encounters with them. This officer and another sergeant have been prominent in harassing us over the past year,” he said. “That language would have never been used if he hasn't come over there and done that.”
Davies said he believes the group attracted the attention of police due to their colors or insignias sewn onto their vests, as well as their appearance.
VanderWiel said California law protects against a range of racial and identity profiling, but “the patches on their jackets are not gender identity or expression,” he said.
“The state definition of profiling is pretty specific and clear, and this does not fall under the definition California has for it,” he said.
A motorcycling profiling law, AB-2972, passed a public safety committee vote on April 10 but failed to pass in the California assembly in a 21-28 vote on April 19. A motion to reconsider the bill was submitted by the bill’s principal author Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of the 30th district, which covers an area in Monterey, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties and all of San Benito County.
The bill would have given motorcyclists the right to seek punitive damages if they were the victim of enforcement action because of their club-related clothing or vehicle, without individualized suspicion of the person.
Ewing said the Jus Brothers was currently not considering a civil suit against the Sonora Police Department, but believed the video would “bring attention to the public to let them know that our police department is profiling bikers because of what we dress and what we ride.”
None one was detained or arrested as a result of the law enforcement action, VanderWiel said, but one motorcycle was towed for being parked in a red zone and for displaying false evidence of registration.
VanderWiel said he could not comment on personnel matters regarding Hankins, but said “there doesn’t appear to be any cause of any kind of discipline.” VanderWiel also said that the police department had been receiving a high volume of calls to the dispatch center, with some repeated from the same individuals and threatening toward officers.