My print column this week takes an overall look at the flap involving the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
There’s potentially a curious irony in all the hullabaloo between the U.S. Department of Justice and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson — a standoff that entered its third year in June and shows no sign of letting up after events of the past week.
And I emphasize the word “potentially.”
Anyway, it is this: Johnson could be viewed as a victim of profiling by the federal government.
Really. Think about it.
He’s a white Southern sheriff.
He’s a white Southern Republican sheriff.
He’s a white Southern sheriff prone to saying things every so often a white Southern sheriff shouldn’t say.
And he’s a white Southern sheriff who doesn’t like to be told what to do by the federal government.
Add it all up and the U.S. Department of Justice could perhaps have come to this conclusion: Sheriff Terry Johnson is the second-coming of fictional Sheriff Buford T. Justice from those “Smokey and the Bandit” movies or the Southern lawman seen in old TV commercials who can’t seem to avoid calling everyone in sight “bwah.”
In short, some might contend the DOJ made a judgment about Johnson based on racial and cultural stereotypes. I’m not saying they did or didn’t. And if so, it doesn’t mean the DOJ is right. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either. It might have almost nothing to do with truth and everything to do with perception, long-held beliefs, politics and twisted logic.
See how this profiling stuff works?
THE IRONY PART, of course, is that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice is accusing Johnson and his office of doing themselves — racially profiling Hispanic residents and pulling them over for driving while Latino and violating their constitutional rights. Last week, the DOJ released a list of allegations against Johnson and his department, most stretching back to when the county entered into an agreement with the federal government to operate the 287(g) illegal immigration enforcement program.
The allegations — and at this point they are just that, allegations — paint a horrifying image of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office under Johnson, who has denied such accusations for the past five-plus years. He did so again on Tuesday when this new list was released, a day after the DOJ dropped plans to take the county to court over the right to interview sheriff’s office employees out of earshot of the county attorney.
Instead, the DOJ said it had plenty of evidence pointing to problems in Johnson’s department, including a study of three major county roadways reporting that deputies were between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers; checkpoints are set up near Latino neighborhoods as a kind of entrapment; deputies seek ID from stopped Hispanic drivers but do not from others; Hispanic drivers are arrested for minor traffic violations while others are merely ticketed; and that deputies are instructed to target Hispanic people in the community.
These and other allegations the DOJ said stemmed from independent reports, newspaper articles, a review of Sheriff’s Office policies, procedures, training materials, and data on traffic stops, arrests, citations, vehicle checkpoints and interviews with 125 people. The Sheriff’s Office maintains that it also sent requested paperwork to federal investigators but much of that information was ignored.
The overall memorandum issued by the DOJ is long on allegations but short on specific dates, times and places. A letter from the DOJ to county attorney Clyde Albright and Johnson’s attorney Chuck Kitchen is a little more specific, but isn’t loaded with documentation, either. That could come during an almost certain legal battle ahead.
Some of the allegations are familiar. One, points to public statements indicating racial bias by the sheriff. The most infamous, of course, is this one reported by the News and Observer in which Johnson is quoted saying this about Mexicans: “Their values are different — their morals — than what we have here. In Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl . . . They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico.” The DOJ also reports that Johnson uses the term “Taco eaters” in reference to Latinos when talking to his staff.
If either is true, then the sheriff is his own worst enemy.
AT A PRESS conference last week, Johnson made it clear he intends to fight back against the DOJ and has no plans to take its recommendations for cleaning up any problems it cited concerning his department and its “egregious pattern of racial profiling.” Among the list of changes: Elimination of overt discrimination, training in constitutional policing, outreach efforts to all segments of the community, and a system for handling complaints lodged by the public.
All should be things any law enforcement operation would readily do.
Johnson said the federal government under the Obama Administration is making a political statement. Perhaps. But there are enough complaints from people in the Hispanic community to indicate that the department needed a closer look from an outside agency. There’s a lot of smoke there. And for all of the denials made during press conferences, I have yet to hear someone from the county on any level make the statement that racial profiling is horribly wrong and should not be tolerated.
From my perspective, more cooperation between both parties from the start might have made this entire process go more smoothly and avoid the public relations nightmare this has turned out to be for the county. The county attorney is certainly part of whatever gummed the works in that respect.
And it’ll get worse if and when this matter goes into a federal courtroom. In fact, there was probably a time a year or two ago when both sides could’ve reached some kind of compromise on this matter with neither losing face, but that time is long gone. Each side is like those TV poker players who push their stacks of chips to the middle of the table for one big showdown. They’re all in.
And we’re all the losers for it.