An Indian American family vacationing at a rental house in Rehoboth Beach in Delaware were questioned extensively by police after an elderly neighbor called to report “suspicious behavior.”
Attorney Paul Joseph, along with his wife Karen Williams, and their two sons William and Nate, were vacationing with Joseph’s two brothers, Roy — a surgeon — and Anil — a banker, along with their families and their 73-year-old mother. The family was renting a $7,000 per week home a short distance from the beach.
“I’ve grown up going to Rehoboth many times before. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Paul Joseph told India-West, describing the neighborhood as a mostly white, wealthy enclave. “We did nothing that was not neighborly. We didn’t have a huge amount of visitors, we didn’t play loud music,” he said.
According to a police report, on June 19, an elderly neighbor, a white male, called a lieutenant at the Rehoboth Beach Police Department to complain that he overhead people talking next door saying they “weren’t supposed to be there, but it was okay.”
“Given that Rehoboth Beach is a resort town with rental properties in which the homeowner resides elsewhere, often times out-of-state, the Rehoboth Beach Police Department often responds to complaints of "squatters,” and/or suspicious persons that are not believed to have permission to be at a property,” read the report.
A supplemental police report stated that the neighbor had called because he heard people discussing where they would eat sandwiches — upstairs or downstairs — and that “they were not going to hurt anyone.”
The investigating officer asked to see a copy of the rental agreement. The Josephs’ 73-year-old mother, who is from Kerala, went down to the beach to find her sons and to let them know what was happening. One of the sons was able to pull up the rental agreement on his phone.
“To demand to see your rental agreement is like asking a driver you’ve pulled over to produce his passport,” said Joseph, who worked in the Justice Department for over 18 years. “I was so taken aback that this was happening in this climate,” he told India-West, referring to the national inflection point on racial inequity after the brutal death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, a Black man killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second degree murder.
“There was no chance this could have been a squatting incident,” he said, noting that police could simply have called the rental agency, whose number was on a board outside the home, to verify that the Josephs had rented the place that week.
Moreover, said Joseph, the police report placed blame on the family, stating that the brothers were asking for identifying information of the caller and wanted to contact Police Chief Keith Banks, allegedly creating delays in the investigation.
“I’ve read more than 7,000 police reports during my long career in law enforcement. I’ve never seen one written so bizarrely,” said Joseph. He said that neither the police nor the mayor’s office have called to apologize or to clarify what happened.
In a Facebook post, the Rehoboth Beach Police Department stated: “The Rehoboth Beach Police Department would like to clearly state that the family did nothing wrong and that our agency has never made any such accusations.”
The Police Department further stated that they did not know the race of the family before sending an officer out to investigate, and that race played no role in their determination to investigate the neighbor’s call. “We strongly believe that racism has no place within our community,” said the agency.
Initially, Joseph thought he would let the incident go. “I didn’t want to over-dramatize things.” But he called a couple of colleagues at the Justice Department, who told him: “This smells really bad. You have to pursue it.”
“A lot of people of color are seeing (scenarios such as this) increasingly happening, but no one ever says race out loud,” he said.