I-5 drug searches halted af­ter racial pro­fil­ing con­cerns

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joel Rubin and Ben Pos­ton

The Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment has sus­pended op­er­a­tions by a team of deputies that stopped thou­sands of in­no­cent Latino mo­torists on a stretch of the 5 Free­way in search of drugs and other con­tra­band, an agency spokes­woman said Fri­day.

The move comes amid ac­cu­sa­tions of racial pro­fil­ing af­ter a Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Oc­to­ber found that 69% of drivers stopped by the team were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their ve­hi­cles searched — a rate far higher than mo­torists of other racial and eth­nic groups. Cars be­long­ing to all other drivers were searched less than half the time, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per’s anal­y­sis of Sher­iff’s Depart­ment data.

Re­spond­ing to an in­quiry from The Times, depart­ment spokes­woman Ni­cole Nishida said Fri­day that sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials were gath­er­ing data on the Do­mes­tic High­way En­force­ment team’s ac­tiv­i­ties and would eval­u­ate whether to re­sume op­er­a­tions some time in the fu­ture. The de­ci­sion to shut down the unit was made Nov. 16, be­fore newly elected Sher­iff Alex Vil­lanueva was sworn in this week, she said.

“The team is sus­pended un­til fur­ther no­tice,” Nishida said, adding that the deputies them­selves re­main work­ing other as­sign­ments.

In an in­ter­view, Vil­lanueva said he had been un­aware the deputies had been pulled off the free­way but sup­ported the move.

“I wouldn’t want the ef-

fort to con­tinue un­til we know that it is con­sti­tu­tion­ally sound,” he said.

The team was put on hold a day af­ter the county’s in­spec­tor gen­eral told mem­bers of the depart­ment’s civil­ian over­sight panel that the team vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional rights of drivers and was in­ad­e­quately su­per­vised. The in­spec­tor gen­eral, Max Hunts­man, ques­tioned the rea­son for the unit’s ex­is­tence and said sher­iff’s of­fi­cials failed to take heed of sev­eral fed­eral court rul­ings that found the deputies on the team vi­o­lated the rights of mo­torists by de­tain­ing them longer than was rea­son­able.

“The sys­tem is in­her­ently built to vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tional rights of a vast num­ber of peo­ple pass­ing through the I-5 Free­way,” Hunts­man told the Sher­iff Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion. “That’s a prob­lem.”

Patti Gig­gans, chair­woman of the over­sight body, said she thought the de­ci­sion to sus­pend the high­way team’s op­er­a­tions was wise, in light of the find­ings by Hunts­man and The Times. She ques­tioned, how­ever, why depart­ment of­fi­cials had not an­nounced it pub­licly.

“I’m im­pressed they moved ahead like this, as­sum­ing they did it from a sin­cere place,” she said. “When­ever the sher­iff is tak­ing heed of what peo­ple around him are say­ing, it’s a good sign.”

Robert Bon­ner, a re­tired U.S. dis­trict judge and mem­ber of the over­sight panel, agreed.

“In light of the avail­able in­for­ma­tion, it seems to be a good move to shut it down and eval­u­ate whether the pro­gram was op­er­at­ing consistent with the Con­sti­tu­tion and poli­cies of the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment,” he wrote in an email.

The Cal­i­for­nia League of United Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens re­leased a state­ment prais­ing the de­ci­sion to halt the team’s op­er­a­tions and say­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion looked for­ward to meet­ing with the new sher­iff to “dis­cuss how we can bet­ter serve our com­mu­ni­ties.”

“We can­not al­low the con­struc­tion of any sys­tem that is in­her­ently built to vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tional rights of peo­ple to ex­ist,” the state­ment said. “L.A. County res­i­dents need to know that they are not be­ing tar­geted.”

Hunts­man, who be­gan ex­am­in­ing the team in re­sponse to The Times’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion, told the over­sight panel his staff had con­ducted ride-alongs with the team’s deputies and saw no signs they were us­ing race when de­cid­ing whom to stop or search. He added he was still gath­er­ing data on the team’s traf­fic stops that he plans to an­a­lyze for ev­i­dence of racial dis­par­i­ties.

Af­ter The Times shared the find­ings of its anal­y­sis with the agency ear­lier this year, sher­iff’s of­fi­cials de­clined to ad­dress the racial dis­par­i­ties but de­nied that deputies use race as a fac­tor when mak­ing stops. In­stead, they said, deputies pull over peo­ple for traf­fic vi­o­la­tions or other in­frac­tions and then look for sus­pi­cious be­hav­ior or other signs from drivers and pas­sen­gers that con­tra­band may be hid­den in the ve­hi­cle.

Sher­iff’s of­fi­cials re­peated those claims to the civil­ian over­sight com­mis­sion and sug­gested the rea­son for the racial im­bal­ance in stops was be­cause Lati­nos drive that par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the free­way more of­ten than drivers of other races or eth­nic­i­ties.

But data from the Cal­i­for­nia High­way Patrol, which mainly po­lices traf­fic vi­o­la­tions on the same sec­tion of free­way, ap­pear to un­der­mine that claim. Ear­lier this week, the CHP pro­vided Hunts­man and The Times data show­ing that Lati­nos made up only 43% of drivers stopped by its of­fi­cers from April through Septem­ber on the same stretch of free­way that the sher­iff ’s team pa­trols.

Sher­iff’s of­fi­cials said they launched the high­way team in 2012 as a re­sponse to a spate of drug over­doses in the Santa Clarita area, al­though Hunts­man said in Novem­ber that the team has not been ef­fec­tive in re­duc­ing over­doses. Sim­i­lar units op­er­ate around the coun­try as part of a fed­eral pro­gram de­signed to use lo­cal and fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies to com­bat drug traf­fick­ing.

Though the deputies are look­ing for any crim­i­nal, nearly all of their ar­rests have been for drug-re­lated crimes.

The 5 Free­way, they say, is a pipe­line for car­tels to move drugs up the West Coast and re­turn to Mex­ico with cash from drug sales as well as weapons pur­chased in the United States.

The team has made more than 1,000 ar­rests and seized 600 pounds of co­caine and more than a ton of metham­phetamine, among other drugs, since it was formed. But Hunts­man said that, with­out know­ing the to­tal sup­ply that is mov­ing through the 5 Free­way cor­ri­dor, it’s dif­fi­cult to say how ef­fec­tive the deputies’ ef­forts have been.

The Times’ anal­y­sis shows that deputies found drugs or other il­le­gal items in the ve­hi­cles of Latino mo­torists at a rate that was not sig­nif­i­cantly higher than that of black or white drivers.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

AN L.A. COUNTY deputy ex­am­ines a car in July. The Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment qui­etly sus­pended the op­er­a­tion Nov. 16, be­fore Alex Vil­lanueva took of­fice.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

THE TIMES found Lati­nos were stopped and searched at a higher rate than other groups, but il­le­gal items were not found to a sig­nif­i­cantly greater de­gree.

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