Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a jaw-dropping civil rights lawsuit against Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson. Following a two-year investigation and interviews with more than 100 witnesses, DOJ amassed widespread evidence that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) was systematically and unlawfully targeting Latino residents for investigation, traffic stops, arrests, seizures, and other enforcement actions.
One expert’s statistical analysis of Alamance County found some of the highest rates of racial profiling ever documented in the United States. The expert, whose work was commissioned by DOJ, presented findings that along three major Alamance County highways, Johnson’s deputies were approximately 4, 9, and 10 times more likely, respectively, to stop Latino drivers than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.
The lawsuit presented evidence of Latino drivers being followed by Alamance deputies for long stretches of time and then pulled over for little or no reason. Witnesses testified about numerous incidents in which Johnson and other ACSO employees used racial epithets and expressed extreme prejudice against Latino residents, such as Johnson allegedly ordering deputies to “bring me some Mexicans,” “put heat on” predominantly Latino neighborhoods, and “go out there and get me some of those taco eaters.” Deputies were accused of sharing links to what the Associated Press described as “a bloody video game where players shoot people entering the country illegally, including children and pregnant women.”
The claims in the lawsuit mirrored complaints that the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have received about Johnson, his deputies, and their treatment of Latinos for years. Simply put, Johnson and his deputies have a reputation for targeting the Latino community in Alamance County.
What was perhaps most disturbing, was that until the federal government announced the findings of its investigation in 2012, Sheriff Johnson’s office was among six counties in North Carolina receiving funds through the federal 287(g) program, which grants local law enforcement the authority to enforce federal immigration law. Under that agreement, Johnson’s deputies were empowered to arrest and detain people suspected of immigration violations and hold them in custody for potential deportation.
After the department’s egregious civil rights abuses were exposed, the federal government rightfully terminated its 287(g) agreement with Alamance County in 2012 and the Sheriff’s Office was stripped of its authority to investigate potential immigration violations by individuals detained in the county jail.
Despite a mountain of evidence about the department’s discriminatory practices, a federal judge ultimately dismissed the case against Sheriff Johnson but still admonished his office for some of its behavior, including the frequent use of anti-immigrant epithets and slurs during official department business. ACSO later signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice to mandate better training and policies for bias-free policing, though it is unclear what, if any, reforms have been implemented.
Now, five years later, Sheriff Johnson is still in office and there is a new administration in Washington. This week, the Trump administration, which has pledged to drastically increase local law enforcement’s role in federal immigration enforcement, will consider an application from the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office to rejoin 287(g). If the application is granted, Sheriff Johnson and his deputies will receive taxpayer funds and a green light to participate in the Trump administration’s deportation program, with virtually no restraints or consequences suffered after a well-documented history of civil rights abuses against Latinos.
Given the Sheriff’s extensive record, the Department of Homeland Security must reject this application. The federal government should never partner with departments that have such egregious records of constitutional violations and anti-immigrant animus.
In its 2012 lawsuit, DOJ charged that the sheriff’s reported remarks frequently assumed, incorrectly of course, that all Latinos in North Carolina are undocumented. Witnesses reported times when Johnson told subordinates, “‘if you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him.’”
Under the law, you cannot question and arrest a person just because they look Latino and speak Spanish. We live in a country in which the Constitution guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment under the law regardless of their skin color or accent. Discriminatory profiling does not make us safer. Instead, it erodes the necessary trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they swear to serve and protect.
Sheriff Johnson and his department lost their 287(g) status for a reason. Law enforcement officials with such a history of discriminatory policing should never receive federal support to target residents and communities.
Irena Como is a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina.