Targeting bias in Alamance

Federal authorities rightly focus on discrimination alleged against the Alamance County sheriff.

September 21, 2012 

The people least surprised by a federal report alleging that Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has a different kind of law enforcement for Latinos in his county were those with the American Civil Liberties Union. Chris Brook, legal director of the state ACLU, said his group has been getting reports of discrimination by Johnson and his deputies for years.

Indeed, Johnson has some explaining to do after the two-year investigation that led to the report, and if he and Alamance officials can’t negotiate a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, that department can take the county to federal court.

That outcome may be likely, because in North Carolina county sheriffs are powerful political figures, and Johnson probably didn’t help the cause for a negotiated solution when he responded to the report by saying, “The Obama administration has decided to wage war on local law enforcement.”

The sheriff’s statement is so nonsensical as to be almost funny. But there’s nothing amusing about what the Justice Department alleges and in the conclusions signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez. The report stated that “anti-Latino bias motivates his (Johnson’s) selection and enforcement of enforcement priorities.”

Among the contentions: that Johnson has instructed his officers, “If you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him.” Johnson’s deputies, the report said, were 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino ones. And Latinos are only 11 percent of the county’s population. The report also says Johnson has set up roadblocks in areas where Latinos live.

Johnson is an enthusiastic supporter of a Bush administration program known as 287(g), in which local law enforcement can, in the course of processing people, check their immigration status and start them on the way to deportation if those individuals are found to be illegal immigrants. The program is troubling, because illegal immigration is properly a federal issue, even though Congress and several presidents have been hesitant to address the issue in a meaningful way.

But it puts sheriffs in the position of being federal enforcers, and thereby risks exactly the kind of problems Johnson has now created for Alamance County.

The sheriff denies he has discriminated, although his spokesman didn’t deny that in a 2007 newspaper article, the sheriff said of Latinos, “Their values are a lot different, their morals, than what we have here. In Mexico there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12- or 13-year-old girl.” The spokesman seemed to try to excuse the comment by saying it was made in reference to a prostitution arrest involving underage girls.

Johnson is not alone, apparently, in having curious statistics regarding Latino arrests or stops in his county. A UNC-Chapel Hill study found that statewide, Latinos were 96 percent more likely than whites to have their vehicles searched during a stop. The Justice Department may not yet be through in North Carolina.

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