Justice Dept. accuses N.C. sheriff of discriminating against Latinos

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)December 21, 2012 

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit on Thursday against the Alamance County sheriff, accusing him of fostering a climate of discrimination against Latinos for years.

The Justice Department officials contend Sheriff Terry S. Johnson directed his deputies on more than one occasion to “go out there and catch me some Mexicans,” “go out there and get me some of those taco eaters” and “bring me some Mexicans” while banging his fists on a table after a meeting about immigration rules.

Johnson has disputed the claims and his attorney, Chuck Kitchen, reiterated that on Thursday.

“[I]t appears that many of the allegations in the complaint are derived from prior press interviews,” Kitchen said in a prepared statement. “The complaint seems to rely on some of the same persons that have appeared in these interviews stating that they were arrested by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office. However, we have determined that these individuals were in fact arrested by law enforcement agencies other than the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.”

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Middle District of North Carolina, which includes Alamance County, comes nearly three months after Justice Department officials released a scathing report about the Alamance County sheriff’s policies.

The report was the culmination of a two-year investigation. Between June 2010 and the release of the Justice Department findings in September, federal investigators interviewed more than 125 people, reviewed Alamance County sheriff department policies, procedures, training materials and data on traffic stops, arrests, citations, checkpoints and other documents.

The report included findings that:

• Deputies were between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers.

• The Sheriff’s Office routinely located checkpoints near neighborhoods with many Latino residents.

• The sheriff uses jail booking and detention practices, including practices related to immigration status checks, that discriminate against Latinos.

• The sheriff and high-ranking deputies fostered a culture of bias by using epithets to describe Latinos and using substandard reporting and monitoring practices that masked the discriminatory conduct.

• The county abused its power under the controversial 287(g) deportation program until Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities ended it in Alamance.

Alamance County has seen shifting demographics over the past two decades. In 1990, census figures show, there were 736 Latinos and whites made up 80 percent of the population. Latinos now number nearly 17,000, or about 11 percent of the population; whites have dropped to 66 percent.

Latinos have been drawn to Graham in Alamance County by its low-cost housing and its proximity to construction and service-sector jobs in Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.

Johnson, 62. a former state investigator, is serving his third term as sheriff.

In his first campaign in 2002, The L.A. Times recently reported, he ran an ad that featured theme music from the “Twilight Zone” and spoke disparagingly of “aliens.”

“They’ve filled our courtrooms and invaded our schools,” the ad stated. “They sponge off the American taxpayer by clogging our welfare lines and our hospital emergency rooms.”

The sheriff’s approach to fighting illegal immigration has created tensions among Latinos across the county.

Johnson, who has been on the job 10 years, contends that his department does not engage in the profiling of Spanish-speaking people, his attorney said.

Justice Department officials released a statement on Thursday, saying the suit was filed because the Sheriff’s Office had “declined to enter into meaningful settlement negotiations” over the accusations of racial profiling contained in the September report.

“This is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff who misuses his position of authority to unlawfully target Latinos in Alamance County,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

The sheriff’s directives and leadership, Perez continued, have violated the constitutional rights of Latinos in Alamance County and eroded public trust in the law enforcement agency.

The Justice Department, in its suit, is seeking a “court enforceable, comprehensive, written agreement that will ensure long term structural, cultural and institutional change” at the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.

Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said Thursday in a statement that it was unfortunate the Sheriff’s Office had refused to comply with requests from the Justice Department to address the findings of widespread discrimination. The ACLU urged the department to change course.

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