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Report: Alamance Co. sheriff deputies targeted Latinos, violated Constitution

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ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. –  A two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has determined the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office routinely discriminated against Latinos and engaged in a pattern or practice of misconduct that violated the Constitution and federal law.

Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has been a vocal cheerleader for a federal program that allowed local law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of those they stopped, potentially triggering their deportation.

The Department of Homeland Security announced this year it was discontinuing the program following widespread complaints of racial profiling.

The investigation was initially opened in June 2010.

According to the report, the Justice Department finds reasonable cause to believe that ACSO “engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and Title VI.”

“The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office’s egregious pattern of racial profiling violates the Constitution and federal laws, creates distrust between the police and the community and inhibits the reporting of crime and cooperation in criminal investigations,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

According to the Department of Justice, some of the discriminatory policing activities include:

  • ACSO deputies target Latino drivers for traffic stops;
  • A study of ACSO’s traffic stops on three major county roadways found that deputies were between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers;
  • ACSO deputies routinely locate checkpoints just outside Latino neighborhoods, forcing residents to endure police checks when entering or leaving their communities;
  • ACSO practices at vehicle checkpoints often vary based on a driver’s ethnicity.   Deputies insist on examining identification of Latino drivers, while allowing drivers of other ethnicities to pass through without showing identification;
  • ACSO deputies arrest Latinos for minor traffic violations while issuing citations or warnings to non-Latinos for the same violations;
  • ACSO uses jail booking and detention practices, including practices related to immigration status checks, that discriminate against Latinos;
  • The sheriff and ACSO’s leadership explicitly instruct deputies to target Latinos with discriminatory traffic stops and other enforcement activities;
  • The sheriff and ACSO leadership foster a culture of bias by using anti-Latino epithets; and
  • ACSO engages in substandard reporting and monitoring practices that mask its discriminatory conduct.

The investigation included an in-depth review of ACSO policies, procedures, training materials, and data on traffic stops, arrests, citations, vehicle checkpoints and other documentary evidence. Department personnel also conducted interviews with more than 125 individuals, including Alamance County residents and current and former ACSO employees.  

Sheriff Johnson denied the claims in the report. 

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"We have never discriminated against Spanish-speaking persons in any way, shape, form, or fashion here at the Alamance County Sherriff’s Office as long as I have been sheriff," Johnson said. 

Johnson blamed President Obama's administration for its "war on local law enforcement" and did not take questions after reading a statement. 

Sheriff Johnson's attorney Chuck Kitchen called the DOJ's release of accusations "unprofessional" but stopped just short of calling it an outright lie.

"What the Department of Justice has done is try to take snip-its, put em together in ways that is totally unfair to the sheriff. This is not what our sheriff stands for in Alamance County," Kitchen said. 

Addressing these findings and creating sustainable reforms will require ACSO to commit to long term structural, cultural and institutional change, according to the report.

According to the report, the department will seek to obtain a court enforceable, comprehensive, written agreement remedying the violations and incorporating these reforms by attempting to work with ACSO officials.

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