Owner Kevon Gordon, left, and barber Ronald Jones wait for customers at… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
MORENO VALLEY — For more than two decades the Hair Shack has been a black institution in this city, a place where kids get their first haircuts, politics is chewed over and spontaneous card games erupt in back rooms.
Cursing is banned and baggy pants frowned upon. Owner Kevon Gordon and barber Ronald Jones say they run a tight ship. And until one morning last April, they say, the only contact they had with police was when they cut their hair.
"I was finishing up with a customer and all of sudden nine people ran in," said Jones, 50. "There were police in body armor. I said, 'What's going on?' and they demanded to see my ID and ran a warrant check on me. They asked my clients if they were felons. It went on for 45 minutes and then they just walked out."
Shortly after, Moreno Valley police and inspectors from the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology raided five other nearby barbershops, four black-owned.
Ray Barnes cut hair at Fades Unlimited, which is no longer in business.
"They said it was a state inspection -- but in a normal inspection, a lady walks in with a clipboard, not with the police," he said. "The police followed the inspectors and looked over their shoulders the whole time."
This month, , Gordon, Jones and Barnes joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal lawsuit against Moreno Valley, its Police Department, the former police chief, the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff, since Moreno Valley contracts with the county for its police services.
The suit claims the raids were racially motivated, executed without warrants and designed to intimidate black businesses and customers.
"The police were using the business inspection as a pretext to look around for evidence of criminal wrongdoing with no reason to do so," said ACLU attorney Peter Bibring. "We want to make sure the police don't use business or health inspections as a way to get around requirements for obtaining search warrants."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, a written policy against racial profiling, a ban on similar kinds of searches and a change in state policy that would limit the role of police in similar inspections.
But Chief Deputy Rick Hall of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, who was Moreno Valley's police chief at the time of the incident, insists race never was a factor. He said the raids were prompted by police who went into a shop and found barbers working without licenses.
"The officers determined this might be a problem throughout the community, so we asked the state to get involved," said Hall, one of those being sued.
"Some of the shops selected for inspection had previously been identified as having criminal activity in and around them."
Sixteen businesses were targeted. Six were inspected the first day; the others, including a Supercuts, were visited two weeks later, he said.
Records show a total of $26,300 in fines levied and 20 code violations reported. Police arrested a man for carrying a concealed handgun, served three misdemeanor arrest warrants and seized a small amount of marijuana.
The Hair Shack was fined more than $1,500 for infractions that included leaving a comb out, having hair on the floor and not having a lid on a trash can.
"We have been here for 22 years, and for them to treat us like criminals is just not right," Jones said.
Barbershop inspections are usually low-key affairs, though police sometimes accompany inspectors if the neighborhood is crime-ridden or there have been past problems, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the barbering and cosmetology board.
"There are cases when a number of boards and agencies will go along with police for wider sweeps," he said. "In this case, the operation was initiated by the Moreno Valley Police Department."
Kristy Underwood, who heads the barbering board, declined to comment but was quoted in the Black Voice News of Riverside shortly after the incident: "We were not told police were looking for criminal activity."
If she knew that, she said, "I would not have approved it."
Heimerich said the quotes were accurate.
Mayor Richard Stewart said he doesn't believe the raids were racially motivated.
"I was told the inspections were done because complaints were made," he said, declining to describe the nature of the complaints. "If this lawsuit runs its course and we find some culpability with the police, then we will meet with the sheriff and talk about it. We will not tolerate racism of any kind."
Barbershops have long held special significance in the African American community, a place where people can gather to talk politics, relax and be themselves.
Since opening in 1987, the Hair Shack has been that kind of place
"I've been coming here since I was 10," said Vernon Russell, 31, on a recent morning. "It was the only black-owned family barbershop in the city. In school you'd be ridiculed if you didn't go to the Hair Shack."
Nash Carlton, 54, fiddled with a putter, taking swings at an imaginary golf ball.
"I have tried other places, but there is no place like the Hair Shack," he said, waiting for his turn in the chair. "It's more community-oriented, not a 'here today, gone tomorrow' kind of thing."
But Gordon, 50, said business has suffered since the raid.
"It has put our reputation and credibility in question," he said. "Now I have people ask me if it's safe."
He still wants to know why he was targeted.
"And an apology would be nice," he said.