Walking The Color Line
Sheriff and Castroville residents struggle over racial profiling.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
For years, Martha Padilla Chavarria had heard stories of racial profiling in Castroville. This past May, she decided to check it out for herself. Standing on Merritt Street, Chavarria, president of the North County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said she saw five young Latinos get pulled over within 40 minutes. Monterey County sheriff’s deputies stopped the drivers for no license plates or for tinted windows, drivers later told her. Chavarria says the stops, most of which didn’t result in a ticket, likely were an excuse to run their records.
“For whatever reason they feel the need to do these pretext stops,” she says.
The following month, the issue became personal for Chavarria, of Prunedale. A deputy stopped her 24-year-old son in Castroville for having a chain necklace with a cross dangling from his rear-view mirror, which is illegal if an object obstructs a driver’s view. Since he was decked out in his red Fresno State jersey and ball cap, the deputy asked him if he was in a gang. Red is associated with Norteño gang members and Castroville gang North Side Castro.
Chavarria got angry. “I was upset, but it validated everything that we had been fighting against,” Chavarria says. “Racial profiling is illegal and it needs to stop.”
In an effort to document racial profiling complaints and develop solutions, LULAC organized two public forums in July and August. Scores of residents attended. Dozens complained that deputies and Monterey County Joint Gang Task Force members routinely stopped and questioned them with no probable cause, mocked them, used profanity and discouraged them from filing complaints about how they were treated. While Monterey County Sheriff Mike Kanalakis denies any misconduct, he has invested more resources in the “Artichoke Center of the World.”
After the Aug. 27 forum, Kanalakis assigned Deputy Alex Aguayo to work full time in Castroville. The sheriff soon plans to open a new field office downtown for two civilian crime prevention specialists. “We are lean in terms of personnel,” Kanalakis says, “but I thought it was necessary to do, to bridge the gap with the community and provide that resource to Castroville.”
Community leaders say these are good steps, and deputies in recent months have scaled back their traffic stops. But many of LULAC’s recommendations have not gotten past Kanalakis’ desk. The sheriff hasn’t committed to any new training in racial profiling or community policing, for example, nor does he want to stop training deputies in Castroville. Kanalakis says he is open to forming a community group to discuss ongoing law enforcement issues, but he doesn’t want it to review reports on traffic stops, field interrogations or procedures for gang-member identification. Plus, the sheriff’s office will not participate in a third public forum that will address crime prevention and intervention. Kanalakis says he prefers to meet LULAC leaders in private.
“Stirring up emotions in a public forum is good posturing for the organizers,” Kanalakis says, “but what does it actually do other than polarize our community and make it more difficult for us to do our job?”
Indeed, there seems to be a disconnect between the sheriff’s office and residents of Castroville, which is 86 percent Latino. In a recent informal survey of 130 residents, 68 percent of respondents said they had a negative view of law enforcement and more than 80 percent said they didn’t know any deputies who patrol Castroville.
Forty-four percent responding to the survey conducted by the Castroville Leadership Council, a Latino community group, said they have no relationship with law enforcement and feel uncomfortable approaching officers.
In the small agricultural town where everybody knows everybody, deputies have stopped the same people over and over again for not having a license plate or because their license plate light bulb was out. The deputies have then often asked the drivers if they are on probation or parole, whether they are part of a gang or have tattoos.
While deputies say they are just doing their job, many residents complain they are being treated like criminals. Even if deputies are not intentionally singling out Latinos, there is a perception of racial profiling, and residents are not as likely to report crimes and cooperate with the sheriff’s office.
Chavarria acknowledges that if someone is pulled over in Castroville, chances are he or she will be Latino. But she and others say deputies target Latino males in their teens and 20s and those who dress like stereotypical gangsters in baggy pants and red or blue.
“A lot of kids are being unfairly labeled as gang members,” Chavarria says. The sheriff’s office doesn’t track the race of drivers pulled over or the percentage of the stops that result in a ticket, verbal warning or arrest.
Kanalakis counters: “We pull people over for legal reasons, not race.” As for questioning drivers about their criminal history or gang affiliation, Kanalakis says that’s a deputy’s job. “If an officer has a reason to believe that a person may be on probation, may be on parole or may be a gang member, then it’s certainly appropriate to question them,” he says. “That’s good police work.”
Eric Becerra, a counselor at North Monterey County High School and co-chairman of the Castroville Leadership Council, says he was pulled over several times in Castroville for not having a license plate on the front of his car, then a Honda Accord. Each time, the deputy asked him if there was a warrant out for his arrest and asked to search his vehicle twice. “If someone doesn’t have a front license plate, how does that warrant a probable cause to search my vehicle?” Becerra asks. Becerra says deputies never wrote him a ticket for his lack of a license plate.
He believes deputies stereotyped him because his head was shaved and he drove a Honda, a car favored by Latino gang members. Since he slicked back his hair and started driving a Ford Mustang, the UC Santa Cruz graduate says, “I don’t get bothered anymore.”
If residents think they have been harassed or profiled they should file a formal complaint, Kanalakis says. “Put it on paper. We’ll investigate it. But I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for anecdotal testimony.”
During his five years in office, Kanalakis says, he hasn’t received a written complaint about racial profiling. LULAC leaders say residents don’t file complaints because they feel intimidated or don’t think it will make any difference.
TOUGH TO PROVE
Even if there were formal grievances, racial profiling is difficult to prove.
Under California Penal Code, racial profiling is defined as “the practice of detaining a suspect based on a broad set of criteria which casts suspicion on an entire class of people without any individualized suspicion of the particular person being stopped.” It requires all peace officers to be trained in cultural diversity and prevention of racial profiling.
Under sheriff’s office policy, racial profiling is when a deputy’s action is “based solely on an individual’s race… or on the basis of racial or ethnic stereotypes.” The policy states race may be used with other factors to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Police departments across the state, including San Jose, Sacramento and San Francisco, collect data on the ethnicity of drivers pulled over and the results of traffic stops. The California Highway Patrol tracks the race of who officers stop as the result of a 2003 class-action lawsuit settlement, the American Civil Liberties Union case Curtis V. Rodriguez, et al v. California Highway Patrol, et al.
For the Monterey patrol area, Latinos made up about 42 percent of traffic stops, whites 45 percent and African Americans 4 percent in fiscal year 2006-07. The patrol area covers Highway 1 along the county’s coast, as well as the Highway 101 corridor along the San Benito County line through Soledad. It doesn’t cover the whole county.
Monterey County is 64.4 percent white, 51.5 percent Latino (there is overlap because many consider themselves white and Hispanic) and about 3 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census 2006 American Community Survey.
While local statistics are limited, a 2007 national U.S. Department of Justice study of encounters with police and the public shows that minorities are treated differently than whites when pulled over. According to the study, based on 2005 data, black drivers were twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop. Sixty five percent of Hispanic drivers received a ticket, while both whites and blacks received tickets about 56 percent of the time. Blacks and Latinos also were nearly three times as likely to have their cars searched than whites. While blacks accounted for one out of 10 encounters with police, they made up 25 percent of instances where forced was used.
Without sheriff’s numbers for Castroville, it’s impossible to gauge whether Latinos are disproportionately pulled over, searched or arrested.
According to dispatch communications, deputies patrolling Castroville’s one beat make the largest amount of traffic stops. Crime Prevention Specialist Dave Crozier says deputies made 1,170 traffic stops in Castroville in the first nine months of this year and 1,454 stops in all of 2006. In the two beats that cover the majority of Prunedale, deputies made 1,524 stops through this past September, and 1,520 stops in all of 2006. In Carmel Valley, deputies stopped 305 drivers through this past September and 375 in all of last year.
According to the 2000 Census, Castroville had a population of 6,724, and 86 percent was Latino. Prunedale had 16,432 people, 23 percent Latino. Carmel Valley had 4,700 people, about 6 percent Latino.
Kanalakis says it is not surprising that Castroville has more traffic stops since the town has the densest population in North County. Plus, Highway 183 runs through Castroville, a heavily trafficked corridor between Salinas and Santa Cruz.
Deputies say it is a minority of the community that is complaining about excessive traffic stops and racial profiling. “The majority of Castroville appreciates us,” Deputy Ken Owen says while chatting with deputies at Rico Expresso Coffee Factory, a popular rendezvous next to the Giant Artichoke Restaurant.
“Every stop we make is a legitimate stop,” says Patrol Sgt. Ron Willis.
Owen says that at night it is difficult to discern the race of drivers. Plus, he notes that Castroville’s population is largely Latino.
Willis says asking drivers whether they are on probation or parole is pretty standard, though he adds, “I don’t know if I would ask grandma and grandpa in their 60s or 70s.”
He says he doesn’t ask every young Latino if he is a gang member but does look to see if the driver is wearing all red or blue or has gang tattoos.
“Gang members are dangerous,” Owen adds. “We want to know what we’re dealing with.”
Diana Jimenez, vice president of the North County chapter of LULAC, says the white youth in Prunedale aren’t harassed like the Latino kids in Castroville. At the Prunetree Shopping Center, Jimenez says, “There is a huge crowd of young kids that congregate out there. They are out there carefree, not a problem in the world. That would never happen in Castroville.”
Kanalakis says his deputies investigate juvenile crowds when residents complain.
Everyone under the constitution has the freedom to assemble,” he says. “We value those rights highly.”
At the same time, Jimenez acknowledges that Castroville has a gang problem that needs to be addressed.
“We are not out to protect those kids who truly are what they classify as gang members,” Jimenez says. “What we are saying is most Latino young men in Castroville are not bad. It’s less than five percent of the population, yet they get painted all with the same brush.”
And, Jimenez says, most deputies are fair and ethical; it’s just a few who abuse their authority. “Just like we have a handful of criminals in our community, we have a handful of deputies that are creating a bad reputation for our community.”
BETTER RECORDS SOUGHT
She and others want the sheriff’s office to maintain data on the ethnicity of drivers pulled over and the results of traffic stops. Sue Sutton, co-chairwoman of the legal committee of the ACLU’s Monterey County chapter, says the sheriff’s office should track every stop and have cameras in all patrol cars.
“It is documentary evidence of what is actually going on in the field everyday,” Sutton says. “Without that there is no accountability.”
Kanalakis says a handful of patrol cars have cameras, under a pilot program. As for documenting every traffic stop, Kanalakis says he doesn’t think it’s necessary. He says he has the “utmost confidence” that his deputies follow the rules. “They know that they have to operate within the law and within the policy,” Kanalakis says, “and they know what the consequences are if they don’t.” Those range from a verbal warning to suspension or termination, depending on the circumstances.
LULAC also doesn’t want Castroville to be the training area for deputies new to patrol work. Since the majority of field training officers work in North County, Castroville is key for training. LULAC leaders complain that this makes the town a testing ground for new recruits to make mistakes.
PULLED OVER TWICE
José Jimenez thinks it was rookie deputies who twice detained him. In February 2006, the 27-year-old Castroville resident drove home around midnight after work at Unavision. When he made a right turn on Pajaro Street, Jimenez says, a deputy pulled him over. The officer asked him over his loud speaker to get out of with his hands visible. After checking his driver’s license, the deputy told Jimenez he was looking for someone with his same name. “I don’t know how he knew my name before I got pulled over,” Jimenez says.
The deputy then handcuffed him behind his back. Jimenez says the deputy emptied out his pockets, placing his cell phone, wallet and Gameboy on the roof of the deputy’s patrol car. Jimenez says the deputy asked him if he had any tattoos and then lifted up his shirt to check. “I felt humiliated,” he says.
Jimenez says the deputy let him go after he checked his record and Unavision ID card. The deputy refused to give him his name or badge and then drove off, Jimenez said.
In June 2006, Jimenez says, he was pulled over in front of his house after Unavision’s evening newscast. “I told them, ‘I live here. I just pulled up. That’s my house,’ ” Jimenez says.
He says the deputy asked him if there were any warrants for his arrest. When he asked the deputy why he was pulled over, Jimenez says the deputy told him he looked “suspicious.” The deputy released him without a ticket.
Jimenez believes he was pulled over both times because of racial profiling. “A Latino driving a black car in the middle of the night,” he says, “he probably thought I was going to rob a house or something. It’s good and bad. In a way they are protecting us, and in a way they are harassing us.”
Kanalakis says Jimenez should file a complaint. “It’s impossible to respond to that without seeing the facts on paper.”
The forums, the addition of a full-time deputy and other measures encourage Chavarria. She hopes the community can establish open communication and mutual respect with law enforcement and work together to make Castroville safer. She says she’d like to see the town patrolled by mature and culturally sensitive deputies.
“I’m focused on just really moving forward,” she says. “I really want to continue building that relationship with our deputies.”
On Nov. 27, LULAC will host a forum focusing on developing resources for crime prevention and intervention. School representatives and members of the Monterey County Police Activities League are expected to attend.
Chavarria says the forum also will set up the framework for a group that will meet regularly with the sheriff’s office to discuss law enforcement and crime topics.
She has planned a February assembly at North County High where students will act out skits portraying positive and negative encounters with law enforcement. She hopes Aguayo will come and talk to students about the consequences of committing crimes and joining gangs.
Kanalakis does not plan to attend the next forum, but notes he is committed to working with LULAC. He says he will likely assign Cmdr. Tracy Brown to the group.
“We can’t do our job… without community support,” Kanalakis says. “I recognize that and I understand that, and I want to work with the community.”
The new field office on Merritt Street is expected to open by December, Kanalakis says. Castroville residents then will be able to file reports and meet with Aguayo and the crime prevention specialists. Kanalakis says he wants his staff to restart a neighborhood watch program in Castroville and bring the citizen’s academy to the town. The academy gives residents an overview of the sheriff’s office patrol procedures and criminal investigations.
While Diana Jimenez says Kanalakis is taking positive steps, she adds that “it’s definitely not the total solution. All of this did not happen overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight either.”