"Go out there and catch me some Mexicans." That's what Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson allegedly told his deputies, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Dec. 20 by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The suit, which was filed in federal court, alleges Johnson's office has "engaged in a pattern of discriminatory law enforcement activities directed against Latinos in Alamance County," a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The DOJ details multiple instances in which federal investigators say Johnson ordered his deputies to target Latino residents. He allegedly told them to arrest Latinos in situations when officials would otherwise issue a citation or a warning.
"Go out there and get me some of those taco eaters," Johnson is accused of saying at a vehicle checkpoint in summer 2011.
At a staff meeting after his office launched the 287(g) program in January 2007, Johnson is quoted as yelling, "bring me some Mexicans!" while banging his fist on the table.
And at a December 2008 meeting in which Johnson was discussing sheriff's office operations at a predominantly Latino mobile home park, he allegedly ordered his deputies to "get tough" on the residents.
"Hell comes to these places and the devil gonna come with him," Johnson is quoted as saying. "And you folks gonna be the devil."
For the past two years, the DOJ have reviwed traffic statistics and interviewed Alamance County residents and current and former sheriff's office employees. As part of the lawsuit, DOJ officials are asking the court to order Johnson to change policies and procedures at the sheriff's office.
"This is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff who misuses his position of authority to unlawfully target Latinos in Alamance County," said Thomas E. Perez, DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement released Dec. 20. "Sheriff Johnson's directives and leadership have caused Alamance County Sheriff's Office to violate the constitutional rights of Latinos in Alamance County and eroded public trust in ACSO."
DOJ officials say Alamance deputies targeted Latinos for traffic stops, routinely installed checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods and altered enforcement activity based on a driver's ethnicity. The suit also claims Johnson's office fails to collect and analyze data that could identify instances of racial profiling.
The DOJ's allegations came weeks after an INDY Week analysis of traffic stop data found Latinos were twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops. According to the DOJ, Latinos are as much as 10 times more likely to be stopped for a traffic infraction in Alamance.
This is a key finding because under the 287(g) program, Alamance deputies could initiate deportation proceedings after an arresting them. The DOJ has stripped Alamance County of its 287(g) powers.
The DOJ report also alleges Johnson tolerated prejudice from his deputies, failing to discipline Deputy Tim Britt for wearing a T-shirt to the office that read, "It's a white thing, you wouldn't understand."
DOJ officials say the suit was necessary because the sheriff's office rebuffed settlement negotiations. Johnson has long maintained that there is no evidence of profiling in Alamance.
Johnson has not officially responded to the suit yet because the sheriff has not been served, says Raleigh-based attorney Chuck Kitchen, who is representing Johnson in the lawsuit. Kitchen said the DOJ presented the suit to the media before his client.
"The sheriff does not abuse his authority," Kitchen said. "I would agree it is an abuse of authority case, but the abuse of authority is by the Department of Justice."
In a Sept. 26 letter to Perez, Kitchen scoffed at the allegations against Johnson, accusing the DOJ of preparing a politically motivated indictment "based on newspaper articles, rumors, and gossip."
"The Alamance County Sheriff's Office does not discriminate against any persons, including Spanish-speaking individuals," Kitchen wrote in September. "As such, my client does not believe that any 'negotiated settlement' is necessary or advisable."
If the controversy has spurred any changes in Alamance operations, it's not apparent from the traffic data.
Based on September and October traffic enforcement reports—the most recent available—Latinos were more than four times as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops by Alamance County deputies. In those months, 18.7 percent of Latinos pulled over were arrested, compared to 4.5 percent of non-Latinos.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bring me some Mexicans!"