Black Lives Matter co-founder takes LAPD to trial for 'swatting' prank response

Los Angeles, CA - July 15: At the 10th anniversary Black Lives Matter Festival in Leimert Park Dr. Melina Abdullah, one of the founders of BLM, gets emotional addressing mothers who children have been killed by police on Saturday, July 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah, shown last July, said she and her three children feared for their lives when LAPD officers aggressively approached their home during the 2020 "swatting" call. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Testimony began Tuesday in the trial of a lawsuit brought by Black Lives Matter L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah against the city of Los Angeles, with an L.A. police sergeant telling a jury that he ordered officers to approach the activist’s home in tactical gear even though he was “70%” certain they were responding to a fake hostage situation.

The sergeant, James Mankey, one of the defendants in the case, told jurors he didn’t want to take the chance of not sending the officers if the 911 report of hostages inside the home turned out to be true. Police later determined that Abdullah had been the victim of a “swatting” prank; she sued the city over the LAPD’s response to the incident, saying she and her three children were left fearing for their lives when officers aggressively approached their home. Her attorneys have alleged police targeted her because of her activism.

In August 2020, the LAPD received an emergency call from a person who demanded $1 million or he would shoot the three people he’d taken hostage. He gave police the address to Abdullah’s home. Police dispatched more than a dozen officers and a helicopter to the scene, one of Abdullah’s attorneys, Erin Darling, said in his opening statement, but ignored evidence suggesting the call was a prank and continued with their armed response.

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Mankey, Darling said, had made remarks about similar swatting incidents targeting the owners of mansions in wealthy enclaves “up north” of Los Angeles, yet he wouldn’t order his officers to stand down. Instead, on his command, they proceeded with firearms at the ready as a fearful Abdullah walked outside with her hands in the air, Darling told jurors.

“But the officers don’t see a mother, they don’t see a professor, they don’t see a neighbor. They see a ‘chick’ living in a ‘shack,’” Darling said, referencing what he said was a dismissive tone with which Mankey referred to Abdullah and to her home.

Assistant City Atty. Irving Estrada, who is defending the city in the case, countered that Mankey and the other officers did things by the book while responding to what they perceived at the time to be a genuine threat. He also accused Abdullah of trying to get favorable treatment.

“The officers, they don’t get to say, ‘You know what, not this time, give it to somebody else.’ It’s not an option,” he said. “Dr. Abdullah can have any opinion she wants, she just can’t sue over her opinion.”

Estrada also played for jurors a recording of the prank emergency call, in which the caller told the operator he would shoot three people unless he received$1 million within an hour. At one point, the caller said, “My name is Dale Brooks and I approve this message,” and seemingly grew angry when the operator pressed him for more information.

The caller said he wished to “send a message” that “BLM is a bunch of retards.”

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Darling pointed to what he says were several missteps in Mankey’s handling of the situation, starting with his failure to look up Abdullah’s phone number to contact her. He pointed out that several members of the department’s command staff had Abdullah’s number from her involvement in BLM, saying “they’ve called, they’ve texted.”

Mankey testified he had no way of obtaining Abdullah’s cellphone number.

Darling also questioned why, if Mankey believed that there were hostages inside the home, he didn’t call the SWAT team. The sergeant testified that based on his experience the bar for summoning SWAT to a scene is a high one.

“I have tried to call SWAT numerous times and there is a huge criteria that they demand,” he said.

Darling played for jurors video from Mankey’s body-worn camera, which captured him ducking into his police squad car to pull up Abdullah’s Facebook account. He is later heard telling a police colleague that “she’s some kind of organizer with Black Lives Matter.”

Mankey testified that prior to the incident he did not recognize Abdullah, despite her reputation as one of the most prominent critics of the LAPD.

At some point during the incident, a detective is heard informing Mankey that Abdullah was a “leader” of Black Lives Matter.”

“So you hear that and you still think it’s a real emergency?” Darling asked.

“It’s possible,” Mankey said. “I’m not going to rule it out until I can make contact with residents inside.”

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On questioning from Darling, Mankey said that he repeated Abdullah’s position with BLM to his fellow officers so that they could stay informed, but acknowledged that the detail wasn’t necessarily relevant to their tactical operation.

As officers surrounded her home, Darling said that Adbullah was inside with her three children, who were 16, 13 and 10 at the time.

Concerned with their safety, Abdullah ordered them to huddle together in a room near the back of the house as she went outside to speak with police, he said. As she did, she began livestreaming the encounter on social media, encouraging her followers to show up to the scene.

But while her role as one of the most visible members of Blacks Lives Matter hangs over the trial, Superior Court Judge Rupert Byrdsong instructed the lawyers to avoid putting the politics of defunding the police on trial.

Before court on Monday, Abdullah gathered in a prayer circle with supporters outside the third-floor courtroom, ending their worship with “Ase” — a saying popular among activists that loosely translates to “amen and power to the people.”

Her lawsuit alleges the LAPD’s actions constituted unlawful seizure, false imprisonment, excessive force, assault and negligence, among other rights violations. The department had previously refused to release audio of the calls.

Multiple city officials, including members of the City Council, called for an investigation.

Abdullah has been the target of numerous swatting calls. Authorities have said that a group of teenagers, motivated by racial hatred, were responsible for two previous swatting incidents at Abdullah’s home.

Abdullah’s lawsuit said she was not aware of any investigation or findings, but “still lives in fear of another similar police incident.” Her defense team has argued that the presence of a police helicopter hovering overhead and scores of armed police officers outside her home was a brazen show of intimidation rather than an attempt to come to her rescue.

Earlier this year, police searched the home of another of Abdullah's attorneys, Dermot Givens, while serving a search warrant. Givens called the search unjustified and accused the officers of "ransacking" his home and photographing privileged attorney-client records. A police spokeswoman later said the search is now the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.