Two Indian-American women suing Los Angeles, LAPD: ‘We both thought we were going to get shot.’

Shibani Balsaver parked the rented U-Haul in front of her new Hollywood apartment. It was moving day in February of 2020, and Balsaver was preparing to unload all of her belongings into her first solo apartment.

She and a friend, Sheilanee Sen, would be done in a couple of hours, if everything went smoothly.

Except it didn’t.

Moments later, a swarm of police officers ordered the two women to exit the truck and lay on their stomachs in the middle of the street while officers searched the rental truck, according to court records.

Balsaver, 31, and Sen, 33, remained motionless on the pavement as at least 10 officers surrounded them, some with guns drawn, while a police helicopter hovered above, court records and a video recorded by a bystander show.

“At that point, they had not told us why we were pulled over,” Balsaver, who works in the film industry, recounted in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was terrifying. I really thought I was going to get shot.”

By the time both women were placed in handcuffs, police told them it had been a misunderstanding.

The U-Haul that officers initially believed was stolen had in fact been rented by Balsaver earlier that day, police told the women.

Now, Balsaver and Sen are suing the City of Los Angeles, the officers involved in the incident and the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief for unspecified damages. Their lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court Central Division of California, alleges excessive use of force, unreasonable seizure and search, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault.

“All of this was in full view of Ms. Balsaver’s neighbors,” said Brian Olney, an attorney representing both women. “This is how she was introduced to her neighbors: They got to watch Shibani being ordered out of her car with her hands on her head, lying face down in the street and being violently handcuffed. This has been traumatic. They were completely humiliated.”

“Frankly, they are fortunate that no one got shot.”

Neither the LAPD, the police union nor an attorney representing the plaintiffs responded to messages from The Post late Sunday. An attorney representing the city and the LAPD denied all of the allegations in a subsequent court filing.

Balsaver, who was moving to a new apartment less than a mile away from her residence in east Hollywood, rented a U-Haul on the morning of Feb. 8, 2020, court records state. She met Sen at the old apartment, and the women loaded Balsaver’s belongings into the truck. They began the trip to the new apartment just before noon.

“I was very excited to move to a new apartment,” Balsaver told The Post. “It felt like a new chapter of my life.”

They had arrived on Balsaver’s new block and were about to begin unpacking, court records state, when two officers parked their squad car behind the U-Haul and briefly flashed their lights. The officers believed the truck was reported as stolen and had followed the women for several blocks, according to the lawsuit.

Soon after, additional patrol cars arrived and a LAPD helicopter circled overhead, the lawsuit states.

Then, officers with their handguns and long guns drawn ordered Balsaver to drop her keys out of the U-Haul’s window, and exit the truck with her back facing the officers and her hands on her head before laying facedown on the pavement with her legs spread apart.

Next, the lawsuit states, officers ordered Sen to come out of the truck and open the trunk before joining Balsaver on the ground.

“I saw the guns pointed at me,” Sen, who works in community development, told The Post. “We both thought we were going to get shot.”

The two women, who are Indian-American, said they cannot say whether the interaction with police would have gone differently had they been White; but statistics about police pulling over and violently arresting unarmed people of color speak for themselves, they say.

A 2019 Los Angeles Times investigation found that the LAPD searches Black and Latino drivers far more often than White drivers when they are pulled over, although White drivers are more likely to be found carrying illegal items.

The women remained on the ground several feet away from each other while the truck was searched and officers formed a line, with their guns pointed at the women, the lawsuit states.

One of the officers jammed his knee into Sen’s back as he handcuffed her, according to the legal filing. She was later placed inside a squad car where she was shackled.

Another officer pressed his left knee into Balsaver’s back and his right knee onto her head and neck, pinning her face to the pavement before handcuffing her and taking her to the side of the road.

That’s when an officer told Balsaver that the U-Haul had been reported as stolen, the lawsuit states; Balsaver replied that she had rented it earlier that morning – and that the receipt was in her purse inside the U-Haul.

According to the lawsuit, a police sergeant told the women that the truck had previously been reported as stolen, but was recovered several weeks before Balsaver rented it.

After the mix-up was explained, Balsaver told The Post, the officers joked that she should ask U-Haul to give her free services for a year.

A representative for U-Haul, which is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Olney, the attorney representing both women, said the officers have yet to apologize.

The trauma inflicted upon his clients, he said, could have been avoided had the officers asked for the receipt or given the women an opportunity to explain the situation.

“Instead, they both went through one of the most terrifying days of their lives and they are still dealing with the aftermath,” Olney said.

Long after the incident, Balsaver said, she struggled to eat or sleep; it also cost her a freelance job because she could no longer concentrate, Balsaver added.

The event made her distrustful of police, she said. She was also overcome with embarrassment.

“A few of my neighbors . . . thought that me and Sheilanee had been stealing from the U-Haul,” Balsaver said, adding: “I still feel a little shame walking down my street with the neighbors that I can’t explain this to.”

Sen added: “It’s been more than a year now and it’s still producing quite a bit of trauma for both of us.”

 

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