The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office will recommend that Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri be charged with battery against a peace officer, and may soon release video of the altercation, a spokesman for the office told The Globe and Mail.
The decision on whether to lay the charge is expected to be made this week by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who holds an elected position.
“In law enforcement, at least in the United States, you cannot shove and push the law enforcement officer who is simply trying to do their job and keep an international security event safe, in an era of increasing security concern about safety,” Sergeant Ray Kelly said in an interview Sunday.
The incident under investigation occurred Thursday night between Mr. Ujiri and a sheriff’s deputy, shortly after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland to win the NBA championship. Mr. Ujiri was making his way to the floor to join the celebrations. A video shows that he had a security credential in his right hand not long before the altercation. Sgt. Kelly said that the credential was not displayed when Mr. Ujiri reached the officer.
On Monday, the day of Toronto’s first NBA championship parade, Mr. Ujiri, the team’s mastermind, will be the focus of discussions between Alameda officers and representatives of the Oakland Police Department, which is also investigating. One topic, Sgt. Kelly said, will be whether it is fair and the right thing to release body-camera and arena-security video, showing the incident from several angles.
“I think that the video will help explain the story,” he said.
One video being widely circulated on social media shows the aftermath, in which a man holds back police, shouting “No, no, no, no!” But Sgt. Kelly said, “I think people need to see what was going on before, during and after.”
He has said that Mr. Ujiri shoved the officer and in doing so his arm struck the officer in the jaw. A witness, Greg Wiener, a Warriors fan from California, has gone on Twitter to say that Mr. Ujiri did nothing wrong.
“We were standing right next to the cop when this happened,” Mr. Wiener said in his tweet. “First of all cop was a hard-ass, Ujiri was pulling out his NBA Pass, the cop did not see badge he put his hands on Ujiri to stop him from going forward. The cop pushed Ujiri, then Ujiri pushed back. Cop was wrong.”
A Raptors spokesperson declined to comment. The Raptors have said they are co-operating with the authorities.
The maximum penalty for misdemeanour battery under California Penal Code section 243(b) is a year in a county jail and a $2,000 fine.
Mr. Ujiri, 48, who was raised in Nigeria, is one of a handful of black executives in the NBA. He is a former executive of the year and is widely credited as the team’s architect, trading for Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. His Giants of Africa foundation, begun in 2003, has supported basketball camps in several countries. He, former U.S. president Barack Obama and Mr. Obama’s sister Auma Obama took part last year in opening a community centre in Kenya, in a partnership between Mr. Ujiri’s foundation and one sponsored by Ms. Obama.
On both sides of the border, academics and lawyers who deal with race issues in policing say that there appears to be a racial dimension to the incident.
“I think you’ve got to put this incident into the context of the policing of racialized individuals in North America,” Scot Wortley, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, who wrote a report this year on police street checks in Halifax. “Would Masai have been singled out and stopped by this police officer if he would have been white? Clearly, there were others around him who were passing easily."
He added: “Here is a really high-profile business executive with all the power and money. This was his team. His team had just won a historic victory. There doesn’t seem to have been that much consideration given to the circumstances. Whether or not Masai acted perfectly as he should have, it seems to me that if this had been some white celebrity, he would have been given the benefit of the doubt.”
Novella Coleman, a staff lawyer based in California at PolicyLink, a national equality-seeking organization, said the Alameda department’s insistence on recommending charges is “indicative of the problem we have in this country with an over-reliance on incarceration.” She added: “The facts of how this played out suggest no, it wouldn’t have happened if this person were white.”
Sgt. Kelly said there is no “proof or evidence” that racism was involved and “to use the term racism … is actually not fair and it’s hurtful.” He is not releasing the name of the officer, whom he said has received nasty messages and threats, many of them from Canada.
“Trust me, it’s not been fun for us. Mr. Ujiri is a national hero in Canada.”