LULAC disputes police tactics used in Castroville anti-gang operation.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Complaints of excessive police force in Castroville – including accounts of authorities smoke-bombing an 80-year-old woman’s family and forcing an eight-months-pregnant woman to the curb – have resurfaced in an ongoing dispute between the League of United Latin American Citizens’ North County chapter and the Sheriff’s Office.
The allegations stem from Operation Disrupt, a controversial police sting at the end of June, when deputies, with help from the county’s Gang Task Force and other agencies, arrested 13 people in response to a spike in gang-related shootings.
On one side, LULAC President Diana Jimenez says authorities sanctioned intimidation, humiliation and retaliation against residents who were caught up in the probation and parole sweeps. “You create fear in the community and nobody will be reporting crime,” Jimenez says. “How can that help fight crime in the end?”
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Richards counters that the operation was effective in bringing an abrupt halt to the shootings. “We took many of the known players off the street that were involved in the violence and crime that was being precipitated in Castroville,” Richards says. Once the parties sign off on citizen complaint forms, he says, the Sheriff’s Office will investigate the allegations.
In a Nov. 5 letter to Sheriff Mike Kanalakis, Jimenez lays out four incidents: On June 26 a woman “was forced down to the street curb even though she could barely bend down due to her advanced pregnancy, forced into a patrol car, and was promised that she would have her baby in jail.” The woman is Sylvia Joanna Navarro, who was arrested for felony warrants and has since been convicted of dealing drugs with a gang enhancement. Though law enforcement officials were hesitant to comment on specifics until the matters are formally vetted, GTF Cmdr. Bob Eggers says the woman was taken into custody humanely.
On June 25 a SWAT Team allegedly woke up Pablo Gutierrez and his 80-year-old mother at 3:45am with a smoke bomb that hit Gutierrez in the face. He claims he was handcuffed and questioned for two hours while nine law enforcement officers pointed guns at him. “I am not a criminal, yet my civil rights were violated against being unlawfully detained, searched and interrogated,” Gutierrez’s complaint states.
Authorities were searching for Gutierrez’s nephew, Pierre Santana, who was later arrested for attempted murder and is scheduled to be sentenced in January for assault with a semi-automatic weapon with a gang enhancement. Richards couldn’t confirm whether the search at Gutierrez’s home occurred, but said his investigators will look into it once the complaint is formalized.
Donna Torres’ complaint alleges a cop kicked her boyfriend, Frankie Torres, in the face and claims her 19-month old daughter has been traumatized by the excessive force. “If we as parents subjected and endangered our children to this type of violence and abuse, we would be arrested and charged with child endangerment and abuse,” she states.
Richards denies deputies kicked Torres. The commander previously said he was a Norteño gang member who resisted arrest for using a police scanner to monitor deputies and possessing illegal fireworks, and tried to evade authorities. Torres was sentenced to 120 days in jail for obstruction of a peace officer.
Graciela Rodriguez, Torres’ aunt, also complains of excessive force. Deputies arrested her husband, Hector Marlow, for an outstanding DUI from Santa Clara County. Richards admits that the Sheriff’s Office mistakenly identified him as a gang member.
Richards says the Sheriff’s “ultimate goal is to protect the community and get the bad people off the street.”
Jimenez says she understands deputies have a job to do, but safety shouldn’t trump civil rights. The activist will be presented the 30th Annual Baha’i Human Rights Award on Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Monterey Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association’s annual luncheon.