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Alamance County sheriff opposes DOJ’s allegations concerning treatment of Latinos

October 10, 2012

The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office has come under scruitiny following a two-year investigation conducted by the United States Department of Justice. The recently published results allege the ACSO and Terry Johnson, Alamance County sheriff, engaged in discriminatory policing against Latinos. Photo by Melissa Kansky

The United States Department of Justice  recently released the results of a two-year investigation of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office,which stated the ACSO and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson had violated federal law and engaged in discriminatory policing against Latinos. Clyde Albright, Alamance County attorney, negates the validity of such claims and criticizes the DOJ for not publishing evidence or the names of sources relevant to the investigation report.

“The 12-page DOJ letter does not cite any facts and does not identify a single person with a single complaint,” Albright said.

Accusations of discrimination

In 2010, the DOJ informed the Sheriff’s Office and Johnson of an investigation into allegations of discriminatory acts concerning policing and unconstitutional searches and seizures. The DOJ published the letter to ACSO concerning the results of the investigation Sept. 18, 2012.

“We find ACSO’s enforcement activities have a discriminatory effect on Latinos in Alamance County in violation of DOJ’s regulations implementing Title VI,”  wrote Thomas Perez, DOJ assistant attorney general, in the statement concerning the investigation of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.

In the letter, the DOJ indicates the ACSO is between four to 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers, locate vehicle checkpoints in predominantly Latino neighborhoods and improperly detain Latinos for immigration enforcement. Such practices violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the DOJ argues.

“We find reasonable cause to believe that ACSO engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing,” Perez wrote.

The DOJ gave ACSO until Sept. 30 to sign a settlement agreement to seek negotiations and implement structural reforms , which the office has refused.

“The County Board is interested in knowing just what the sheriff has been accused of by the DOJ,” Albright said.

Albright opposed the claims, asserting the investigation lacked factual evidence and criticized the unpublished nature of the report.

“All they did was reach conclusions,” he said. “I never saw one shred of evidence to base these conclusions on.”

Alamance County responded to the DOJ, denying the validity of the federal department’s allegations. Photo by Melissa Kansky.

He denied the accuracy of the DOJ’s claims that Johnson used racially derogatory epithets, such as “taco-eater,” and said the letter was riddled with generalizations.

In response to the allegations, an attorney for Johnson filed a letter with the DOJ Sept. 26. In the letter, attorney Chuck Kitchen said the report was full of inaccuracies and “based on newspaper articles, rumors and gossip.”

Alamance County Commissioner Linda Massey said she supports the sheriff’s opinion.

“I oppose the results,” she said. “I don’t oppose the fact that they found nothing there.”

Local support for investigation

Nevertheless, David Blair, member and spokesperson of Fairness Alamance, said the results confirm suspicions that members of the group have had since 2008.

Albright alleged Fairness Alamance assisted the DOJ with the report.

[View the story “DOJ accuses ACSO of discriminatory practices” on Storify]

Fairness Alamance developed when Alamance County residents grew concerned with reports of police checks and instances where Latinos were brought into the sheriff’s office for further processing.

“We agree with the DOJ’s findings,” Blair said.

While Albright said there is no factual evidence to support the DOJ’s conclusion, Blair said there was both statistical and anecdotal evidence to support their suspicions.

“If you speak with members of the Hispanic community in Alamance County, you’ll be pretty quick to find out they are subject to more traffic stops than me,” he said, speaking as a white man.

Another member of Fairness Alamance agreed with Blair.

“I don’t think it is right for someone to be pulled over just because of the notion that they might be a criminal,” said Brian Nienhaus, a member of Fairness Alamance and associate professor of business communication at Elon University.

He associated the county’s activity with the discrimination he witnessed while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. He said he remembers a black professor who quit his position because he was tired of being pulled over.

Alamance County Commissioners continue to support the sheriff and deny the DOJ report has any factual basis. Photo by Melissa Kansky.

“I’ve witnessed the phenomena of being pulled over for driving while black and driving while brown,” Nienhaus said. “Both of those groups in the community have played a price for their appearance.”

Although the county represents a real mixture of people, the active political class is predominantly white, Nienhaus said.

County Board argues results are flawed

Alamance County commissioner Tim Sutton said he does not believe the county has stereotyped anyone, and he has aligned himself with the sheriff.

“I support challenging this until I find out there is something we should be reprimanded for and there is something we should be ashamed of,” Sutton said. “We have our findings, and we have what we believe.”

Sutton also described the investigation results as flawed and a symptom of a liberal federal administration.

“The justice department is being heavily manipulated and sympathetic to the people who claim they are being abused,” he said. “I think another justice department under another administration would not have this opinion.”

He equated the claim of discriminatory acts with enabling illegal immigrants to live freely in the county. Sutton interpreted the DOJ’s results as the federal government turning a blind eye on illegal immigration.

“There are countless stories in the country of people being killed by illegal immigrants,” Sutton said. “I am in favor of strict immigration enforcement.”

In contrast to the DOJ results, Sutton said stricter policies in the Sheriff’s Office would result in fewer accidents, fewer crimes and less drug trafficking.

While Sutton argued unauthorized immigrants are often connected to crime, Rachel Stanley, a senior at Elon University and volunteer coordination intern at the Latin American Association in Atlanta, challenged that perception. Instead, she advocated for acknowledging the humanity of all U.S. residents.

“The country and the world is evolving to have a more well-rounded view of immigrants and recognize that they do contribute to society and they do have the same values as us and, more than anything, they are human in a diverse group of people,” Stanley said.

Furthermore, Blair said he believes the sheriff’s current practices reduce the integrity of the local law enforcement and, in turn, increase the number of crimes that go unreported.

“The effect of policing is still based on a context of trust,” Blair said. “By cracking down on immigration in Latino communities, we believe the sheriff opens the door or creates an environment in which more serious crimes are less likely to be recorded.”

Based on data from the Pew Research Center, the graph illustrates what percentage of U.S. residents are unauthorized immigrants and, of that population, what percentage are Hispanic.

Additionally, he said the idea that the majority of members of the Latino community are typically illegal immigrants is false.

Approximately one-quarter of Hispanic adults are unauthorized immigrants, according to a Pew Research Center report published December 2007, and a 2009 report indicated about 4 percent of the nation’s population are unauthorized immigrants with approximately 225,000 to 575,000 unauthorized immigrants living in North Carolina.

Based on data from the Pew Research Center, the graph illustrates what percentage of the U.S. population is Hispanic and, of that population, what percentage is unauthorized immigrants.

The 2009 report published by the Pew Research Center also showed 73 percent of children of unauthorized immigrants were born in the country and are U.S. citizens.

“We would like to see the sheriff’s department no longer targeting Latino neighborhoods in traffic stops,” Blair said. “We would also like to see the sheriff’s department stop targeting Latino drivers, and we would like to see some outreach to the Latino community.”

Federal program impacts residents’ views

While in the letter to the DOJ, Kitchen alleged Alamance County’s incorporation of the 287(g) jail program inspired Fairness Alamance to assist the DOJ with the investigation, Blair said he is not opposed to local law enforcement’s involvement in immigration law, so long as it is done justly.

The 287(g) jail program trains local and state law enforcement under the supervision of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement so local and state officers can identify, process and at times detain those determined immigration offenders.

The county adopted the program in 2007 and is one of seven counties in North Carolina to enforce 287(g).  The DOJ decided to end the program, which was set to expire in October, prematurely.

A member of Fairness Alamance, a local group critical of ACSO, said discriminatory practices diminish the public’s trust of the local law enforcement agency. Photo by Melissa Kansky.

“Fairness Alamance is not opposed to local law enforcement being involved in immigration law enforcement under whatever federal program,” Blair said. “Our concern is that it is done legally and in the confines of constitutional protection.”

Nevertheless, Sutton said the DOJ’s investigation was in violation of the law.

“It’s not the country I’ve been taught about where someone can charge something against you without showing you the evidence,” Sutton said.

Until the DOJ produces factual evidence to demonstrate the ACSO’s violation, Sutton said he is going to continue supporting the sheriff.

In the letter to the DOJ, Kitchen wrote that no remedial measures are needed and that Alamance County will not further address the issue until the DOJ demonstrates a factual basis for the report.

The DOJ indicated it “is prepared to take prompt, appropriate legal action” if the sheriff’s office does not agree to collaboration, according to the statement from the DOJ.

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