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Criticism of Bizzell intensifies

Civil rights and immigrant groups Tuesday accused Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell of discriminating against Hispanics.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, acting on behalf of at least eight advocacy groups, says it will conduct an investigation into whether the sheriff has engaged in ethnic profiling. The group requested arrest records, jail book entries, documents related to traffic checkpoints and statistics.

The action was prompted by a Sunday story in The News & Observer, in which Bizzell made broad statements about Hispanics. In the article, he accused them of "breeding like rabbits" and being "trashy," and expressed concerns about a cultural takeover of his county.

"We were collectively aghast," said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "These comments are racially inflammatory, and the fact that they're attributed to the person in charge of law enforcement in Johnston County is deeply alarming."

Rudinger said ACLU leaders decided to launch an inquiry to determine whether Bizzell's statements were affecting law enforcement in Johnston County.

A spokesperson for Bizzell, who has apologized for the comments, said Tuesday he was outside the county and was not available for comment.

The NAACP's branch in North Carolina joined the ACLU in condemning Bizzell's comments.

"We know how dangerous it is when someone with a badge spews racist innuendos," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP. "It gives license to people who don't have a badge. We won't stand for it."

Juvencio Rocha Peralta, president of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, an advocacy group in Greenville, became the second Hispanic leader to call for Bizzell's resignation. El Pueblo's executive director, Tony Asion, issued the first call Sunday.

Rocha Peralta said Bizzell's comments about Mexicans, a term Bizzell uses as a catchall for Hispanics, were an insult.

"He's an elected official that's been put in place to serve the community, not to criticize and accuse the community," Rocha Peralta said.

He said Bizzell and other leaders who resent an influx of Hispanics should deal with reality.

"We're here, and we're not going anywhere," said Rocha Peralta, who has lived in North Carolina for 26 years. "We have good and bad people just like anyone else."

Bizzell has been a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, appearing at news conferences with her to speak about the impact of illegal immigration. Her office said Tuesday that Bizzell did not speak for Dole, who was in Johnston County for a fundraiser Monday. Her chief of staff, Brian Nick, said she has not been in contact with Bizzell since the story appeared.

"People's words are reflections of themselves," Nick said. "Sen. Dole should be judged on her own statements, and obviously Sheriff Bizzell should be judged on his, and that's why he apologized."

Linwood Parker, mayor of the Johnston County town of Four Oaks, said Bizzell should be commended for apologizing.

"We know that people make mistakes in life, and we don't want to judge the sheriff just on some comments he made out of frustration," Parker said. "The sheriff's not a bad guy, he just, you know, had some comments over the top. That's all it amounts to. I hope people won't judge him just on one instance."

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