Complaints of racial profiling in Lake County

November 12, 2009 7:40:46 PM PST
Several current and former officers from a Bay Area sheriff's department are coming forward to say racial profiling and discrimination are systemic problems there.

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The I-Team has confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating serious accusations that officers pull over people based solely on race, and that officers themselves are treated differently because of their race, disability or sexual orientation.

Lake County has a population of just 64,000 people ? 75 percent white, according to the Census Bureau. However, the percentage of minorities in the sheriff's department is even less.

Some current and former officers say that is leading to a serious problem of racial profiling.

"This is a good ol' boys network run amok, is what the Lake County Sheriff's Office is," said Deputy Francisco Rivero.

"They're targeting people just because of their color," said former Sgt. Kip Ringen. "It's totally wrong."

Ringen left the department after 27 years because of it. Rivero is still there.

"What I was being told here is that pretty much under any circumstance if I see Mexicans, I should stop them," said Brian Lande who left after a year-and-a-half as a rookie cop.

Lande says racial profiling was part of his training and that discrimination was commonplace.

"On an almost daily basis, you would hear deputies refer to people they believed to be Mexican, whether or not true, didn't matter where they were from, but based on their skin color they would refer to them generically as 'Joses,' and not as kind of a friendly colloquialism, in a derogatory way," said Lande.

Lake County Sheriff Rodney Mitchell did not return repeated calls for an interview, so we caught up to him as he headed to work one morning.

Mitchell: "This is not the right location."

Noyes: "Well, you didn't return our calls."

Mitchell: "That's true. Meet me at the office. You can follow me there."

Noyes: "Absolutely, we will. Thank you."

When we arrived at the sheriff's office, Mitchell told us he has launched an internal affairs investigation into the complaints.

When asked if the department has a problem with racism, Mitchell said, "I do not believe we have a problem of racism because that's a broad-based term. Any time you throw in an '-ism' at the end of it, it is pretty far reaching and broad-based, but I'm not going to tell you we have zero problems with any issues because we haven't finished our investigations."

The officers who spoke to the I-Team say Mitchell is sending the wrong message to his deputies. A poster hanging outside the sheriff's office shows a member of the San Diego Sheriff's Department pressing the bloody face of a suspect into the pavement. The caption reads, "Forethought: Think about the consequences before you mess with a deputy sheriff."

"I thought, 'this is Lake County, these guys are yahoos, they're obviously not very professional,'" said Nick Falloy, a public defender from Solano County, who went on a ride-along with a Lake County deputy sheriff last year.

Falloy says he watched one sergeant nicknamed "Ski" treat Hispanic suspects roughly.

"And at that point, I just remember seeing 'Ski' grabbing the guy by the arm and kind of pulling him up toward the front of the truck to push him into the cab of the truck and slapping him on the back of the head, just like with an open palm," he said.

"If it is true, the law enforcement officer needs to be held accountable, period," said Mitchell. "That would be highly inappropriate conduct, if it's true."

Mitchell's own officers say the department often breaks the rules meant to prevent unwarranted search and seizures. For example, at DUI checkpoints, deputies are supposed to pull over cars at a set interval -- every third car, for example. However, they say deputies would pull over everyone who appeared to be Hispanic.

"I watched a deputy as a car was coming up look into it, point at it, and say, 'Here's a no-licencia, we have a Jose,'" said Lande.

That same night, several sources tell the I-Team, officers arrested three field workers for disorderly conduct involving alcohol and took them for what's called "a screen test."

"They also stuffed all three of those individuals into the back of their patrol car and purposefully took corners at excessive speeds and hit the brakes," said Rivero.

They hit the brakes so the men in the back of the patrol car would slam their faces into the screen separating the front and back seats.

"I heard it the very next day, they were bragging about it at the Lower Lake substation about how much fun they had watching the Joses squirm in the back of the car as they drove recklessly to the county jail," said Lande.

Noyes: "And the people in the back are quite uncomfortable bouncing around."

Mitchell: "Did a current member or a former member of my department tell you that?"

Noyes: "Yes."

Mitchell: "Please tell me who that is so that we can investigate that allegation."

Noyes: "Right."

Mitchell: "That is a very serious issue."

Mitchell is facing other serious issues, including deputies being targeted by fellow officers because of their disability, their sexual orientation, or their race. From those who complained about the conduct, we've heard reports of retaliation.

Ringen told a superior about the slurs hurled at Rivero.

"And tells him that I've been called, amongst other things, a wetback, and four hours later he is on administrative leave," said Rivero. "They took his badge, they took his gun, they took his ID."

Asked if that was how it happened, Ringen responded, "pretty much."

Rivero and another officer have filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As a result, the Lake County Board of Supervisors ordered an independent investigation.

"Any accusations of racial profiling and discrimination would concern us as board supervisors," said Lake County Supervisor Denise Rushing. "For one thing, it's against the law, and for another, it's county policy to treat everyone fairly and with respect."

Noyes: "Should people be concerned actually driving through Lake County?"

Lande: "Absolutely."

Rivero: "Yes, yes, unequivocally, yes. I am here because I have to be here. I have no choice. This has to stop."

"It's not right, and the citizens of Lake County deserve more than that and the department deserves more than that," said Lande.

That independent investigation ordered by the county is now done, but the county attorney won't release the report to us saying it's part of the EEOC case.

By the way, Mitchell is running for re-election. His challenger is Rivero. It should be an interesting race.

Late Thursday, the sheriff sent two e-mails saying his arrest records show Hispanic people are not arrested at a disproportionate rate. You can read the e-mails in a new I-Team blog.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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