By Mike Meno, Communications Director of the ACLU of North Carolina
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson yesterday, charging that under his direction, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) has systematically and unlawfully targeted Latino residents for investigation, traffic stops, arrests, seizures, and other enforcement actions since at least 2007. The lawsuit asks a federal court to order Sheriff Johnson to refrain from discriminatory policing and for the ACSO to adopt and implement policies that would constitutionally protect and serve all county residents.
The ACLU and other groups have been receiving complaints about Johnson, his deputies, and their treatment of Latinos for years. But some of the alleged examples of Sheriff Johnson’s own prejudice and policing style outlined in yesterday’s lawsuit – which resulted from a two-year investigation and interviews with more than 100 witnesses – are truly shocking.
-“In a staff meeting … in January 2007, Defendant Johnson yelled “bring me some Mexicans!” while banging his fists on the table.”
-“In December 2008, Defendant instructed his deputies to ‘put heat on’ predominantly Latinos neighborhoods by conducting vehicle checkpoints, ‘knock and talk’ operations, and heightened traffic enforcement.”
-While meeting with deputies about “an upcoming operation” at a predominantly Latino mobile home park, “Defendant encouraged his subordinates to get tough on the park’s Latino residents, saying, ‘Hell comes to these places and the devil is gonna come with him. And you folks gonna be the devil.’”
-“Defendant’s remarks frequently assume without any factual basis, that all Latinos in North Carolina arrived illegally.”
-“During a 2008 ACSO staff meeting, Defendant likewise directed the assembled supervisors to tell their offices, ‘If you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him.’”
-“While participating in a vehicle checkpoint on or about June or July 2011, Defendant implored two deputies to ‘go out there and get me some of those taco eaters’.”
According to the lawsuit, Johnson’s prejudice was repeated in the actions of his deputies. A 2012 statistical analysis commissioned by DOJ found that along three major Alamance County highways, ACSO deputies were approximately 4, 9, and 10 times more likely, respectively, to stop Latino drivers than similarly situated non-Latino drivers. The lawsuit also lists examples of Latino drivers being followed by Alamance deputies for long stretches of time and then pulled over for little or no reason.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that until September of this year, Sheriff Johnson’s office was among six counties in North Carolina receiving funds through the federal 287(g) program, which grants local law enforcement the authority to enforce federal immigration law. (Alamance County’s 287(g) status was revoked three months ago when the Justice Department first announced its findings.) It’s for reasons like this that the ACLU and communities across the country are calling for an end to the 287(g) program entirely.
Looking Latino and speaking Spanish is not enough of a reason to question and arrest a person. We live in a country where the Constitution ensures that all people should be given equal protection and fair treatment under the law regardless of their skin color or accent.
In September, the sheriff’s lawyer said the DOJ’s charges were “meaningless” and that “no remedial measures are needed.” But the details included in yesterday’s lawsuit, and the stories collected by the ACLU and other civil rights groups over years, show that that is not the case. Sheriff Johnson would be wise to comply with the Justice Department’s requests and resolve these issues outside of court. Doing so would not only save Alamance taxpayers from funding a potentially costly legal battle, but help to rebuild trust among county residents by ensuring that all members of the community – regardless of skin color – receive fair and equal treatment from law enforcement.