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U.S. Department of Justice investigates local sheriff's office

by Anna Johnson,

Allegations of "discriminatory policing and unconstitutional searches and seizures" by the Alamance County Sheriff's Office have prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a letter sent to the sheriff's office. The letter was originally sent to County Attorney Clyde Albright who forwarded the letter to the sheriff's office.

Alejandro Miyar, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the department could not comment on an open investigation.

"The case is open and ongoing," Miyar said. "And the Alamance County Sheriff's Office is cooperating."

The allegations of discriminatory policing were against Latinos, he said.

The letter, dated June 2, was sent by Judy Preston, the acting chief of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. According to a press release from the sheriff's office spokesperson Randy Jones, the letter "is silent as to whether the allegations were made by a person arrested by the deputies, otherwise confined in the detention center or made by an organization."

The files and detention center logs will be available to the justice department, Jones wrote, as they have been available to "local parties interested in these matters."

"We have no issues, no concerns about anything done wrong," Jones said. "They've asked for our cooperation with whatever they want to do, and we have assured them we will cooperate."

In recent years various groups have questioned Sheriff Terry Johnson's enforcement of the 287(g) section of the federal immigration law. This section of the law gives local law enforcement officers the power to arrest and detain people who have illegally entered the United States.

The ACLU

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina requested thousands of public records regarding 287(g). In Jones' press release he wrote the ACLU reviewed the documents and "did not reveal any wrongdoing on the part of the Alamance County Sheriff's Office."

Katherine Parker, legal director for the state branch of the ACLU, said that is not true.

"I don't know why they are spreading this falsehood," Parker said. "We never told the sheriff we were not concerned. I don't know where their rationale is for this."

The ACLU, Parker said, has expressed concerns of racial profiling and checkpoints in predominantly Latino areas.

"We do have these concerns, and we have heard complaints," she said. "The records we have been reviewing suggest (the arrests) are disproportionately Latino."

The majority of the arrests are for no operator's license or driving while license revoked, she said.

"It begs the question, 'Why are they being stopped in the first place?'" Parker said. "We have not drawn any final conclusions, and we did not file the complaint, but we support this investigation."

But Jones and Alamance County Commissioner Linda Massey said when Parker came to the Sheriff's office in April 2009, she said the sheriff's office was not a fault.

"After explaining our traffic stop reporting system," Jones wrote in an e-mail. "She remarked our system could be an example for everyone in the state to follow."

Massey recalls Parker telling the sheriff it was other agencies including the Highway State Patrol who "were arresting most of the Hispanics."

Parker said she was told to come alone to the sheriff's office on April 22 to "review samples and examples of the documents in order to narrow (the) document request."

In an e-mail from Albright to Parker, he writes she needed to come alone in order "to meet the requirements of protecting personal and private information."

In the meeting, Parker said, she did mention other agencies but "reiterated that (the ACLU) had received complaints from Alamance."

"They required me to come to that meeting alone and now I know why," Parker said. "It was so they could clearly misrepresent me. And it doesn't matter if the ACLU has concerns, which we do, but the Department of Justice clearly has concerns."


Fairness Alamance

Another group closer to home has also raised concerns with the sheriff's office. Fairness Alamance has disagreed occasionally with the sheriff's enforcement of the immigration law.

Fairness Alamance Communications Chair David Blair joined the group in 2009 and said the group has served a number of roles in the community, including police watchdog.

"We've monitored the Alamance County Sheriff's Office, and we've suggested policy changes to the Alamance County Board of Commissioners," Blair said.

Fairness Alamance did submit complaints last winter, but Blair said he believed they were to the immigration department and not the justice department. Regardless, he said, Fairness Alamance does support the investigation.

"I think it is a good thing and overdue," Blair said. "What I would like to see happen and like to see this investigation (contribute) to is an open, honest and accountable enforcement of 287(g) in Alamance County."

Sheriff's Supporters

Sheriff Johnson is not without his own supporters. He was first elected in 2002 and is currently running for reelection. Johnson spoke at the third Alamance County Tea Party held June 19, and he was introduced by Rep. Howard Coble, R-NC, as "the best sheriff in the country." The crowd erupted in applause.

"If the federal government doesn't want me to enforce the laws," Johnson said during his speech, "then get them off the books."

Alamance County Commissioner Tim Sutton called the justice department's investigation "pure harassment."

"They are so pro-Latino, so pro-immigrant," Sutton said. "They refuse to admit we have an illegal immigration crisis. We are not breaking the law. We have a good sheriff."

The people who support the investigation are narrow-minded, he said. When an individual feels compassion for a particular group but can't "stand to hear a negative word against them," he said it was then time to get out of the debate.

It is "Roselle and cohorts," Sutton continued, "who think we have to turn a blind eye if the person is illegal."

Laura Roselle, an Elon University professor of political science, conducted her own study of traffic data in 2009 using state data. When Sheriff Johnson announced in February 2009 that the sheriff's office had made traffic stops on 494 Hispanic drivers from 2004 to 2008, Roselle investigated the claim. She discovered there were actually 1,344 during the same time period, 850 more than Johnson originally reported. The sheriff's office has claimed the difference was the result of software complications.

Miyar said there is no speculation as to when the investigation will conclude.