Tuesday, February 1, 2011
The Escondido Police Department has had a difficult relationship with its immigrant population. Over the past year, many Latino residents have complained of racial profiling. In recent months, they've organized around the use of technology to try to make a legal case for themselves.
SAN DIEGO One day last November, Raquel Barrios received a frantic phone call on her way to work. Her friend Minerva had been pulled over by police for allegedly making a turn without using a signal. Minerva was in the country illegally and driving without a license. She knew that after being arrested, she'd be a perfect candidate for deportation.
Barrios immediately drove to where Minerva was and started to think about her friend's options.
"We had attracted a lot of attention and there were a lot of people gathering with us there," said Barrios. "Cars were driving by very slow, looking, traffic was slowing down. So I figured, well, I didn't have anything to lose, so I just started filming. I knew that I could film it and take pictures."
The video Barrios recorded that day showed the police officer who pulled Minerva over and the tow truck that took her car away. Barrios said she had heard about other immigrants who were pulled over in Escondido, and she felt it was important to keep a record.
Latinos in Escondido say the checkpoints aren't their only concern. They say they've been targeted by a history of measures. In 2006, the Escondido City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, but that law was struck down in court.
Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher said he doesn't target Latinos.
"It wasn't until 2007 that some of the activist groups began to claim that the checkpoints were just designed to scare away Latinos," he said. "Of course, Latinos are smart enough to know that if you have a license, then you're treated the same as anybody else at a checkpoint."
Since 2004, Escondido police have set up checkpoints every couple of weeks. Residents say they camp out at major intersections and pull cars over to check drivers for valid licenses and look at vehicles for problems -- like broken taillights. A stop for an undocumented immigrant could lead to deportation.
The Escondido Police Department recently partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on a pilot program to crack down on undocumented immigrants previously deported or with a criminal background. According to ICE, the partnership has led to 268 arrests in the last nine months -- 217 of those have been deported.
Maher said the police department doesn't keep demographic data of who's stopped at the checkpoints or who's ticketed. He said the checkpoints and collaboration with ICE have benefited Escondido, even as the number of protesters against both has grown.
"It fits their agenda to say to all the immigrant population 'be afraid of the police,'" said Maher, visibly upset. "You can see I feel pretty strongly. They've worked so hard to divide the community, that all our efforts have to be doubled."
The police department has made an effort to reach out to the Latino community by teaching its officers Spanish and by holding information sessions for immigrant parents to encourage them to keep their kids out of gangs.
Escondido resident Carmen Miranda said those efforts haven't been enough. Standing outside of Escondido City Hall on a recent afternoon, Miranda said she has lost her faith in local police.
"I mean, I went to the police academy, I was going to be a police officer, because I wanted to serve the community," said Miranda. "But then when I started to see what's happening here in Escondido, then I thought, 'oh maybe not.'"
Instead, Miranda is working to rally the city's immigrants by way of text messages, videos and word-of-mouth. Over the last six months, she has protested near checkpoints, holding up signs to warning people from driving through. She said she's also urged people to know their rights once they're detained.
Immigrant attorney Carlos Batara said a recording alone could not make a case for racial profiling by police. But he said the legality of Escondido's checkpoints is currently in question, and the videos may help make that case.
"In my mind, so many of these measures violate constitutional concerns, like due process, but I'm not going to be the final judge of that," said Batara. "Ultimately, that issue needs to be taken up by the higher courts."
Currently, there are attorneys exploring the option of a class action lawsuit against the City of Escondido, by residents who feel they've been unjustly targeted by police over the last six years.