A law enforcement dragnet for a suspect in the Sunday night rape of a Poway teen-ager--a sweep that has focused on migrant farm workers--has generated stinging criticism against the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, including a reference to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.
For their part, sheriff's officials defend the detaining and questioning of nearly 90 Latino men as a measured and appropriate response to the crime, given the general description of the suspect and the assumption that he is a transient.
At issue is the follow-up investigation into the rape of a 15-year-old Poway girl who said she was forced off her horse behind a small market Sunday by a group of eight men and a woman, then attacked by one of the men.
The girl described the rapist as 5-foot-2 to 5-foot-4, 120 pounds, with dark hair, dark eyes and in his 20s, said Lt. Jerry Lipscomb of the Poway sheriff's station.
"It certainly is" a broad description, Lipscomb said, "but it's better than nothing. If someone's on top of you, abusing you, you do the best you can."
Based on that description, Lipscomb organized a sweep Monday that brought 27 sheriff's deputies, including 17 members of the department's special enforcement SWAT team, and 12 U.S. Border Patrol agents to the rural neighborhood along Midland Road, an area of older homes, scattered businesses and scrub-oak fields where, Lipscomb said, illegal aliens are known to live.
"It scared the s--- out of me," said Robert Winkler, who operates an upholstery business at the corner of Midland Road and Adrian Way, in an older part of Poway. "When you see 15 or so guys running around with M-16 rifles and wearing fatigues and combat boots and jungle hats grabbing everyone who looked Hispanic, that's scary.
"It may have been a professional operation from their standpoint, but to me it looked like a police state," Winkler said.
Both Winkler and a neighboring businessman, Ron Gurnee, who operates a furniture refinishing business, said two of their employees were taken away for questioning and later released. Both were back at work on Wednesday.
In all, 83 men were taken to the Poway Sheriff's Station for questioning on Monday, and more were questioned in the neighborhood and released on the spot, Lipscomb said. Six more were questioned Tuesday and Wednesday, he said. About half were turned over to the Border Patrol after being unable to show proper identification.
"We've come up with another witness who didn't articulate observing the rape but did confirm the description of the suspect," Lipscomb said Wednesday. The identity of the suspect still isn't known and "we're still looking," he said.
Concern of Residents
Lipscomb said the Sheriff's Department's quick response and sweep of the area brought kudos from residents who voiced concern at the growing presence of migrant farm workers in their neighborhood. "We've gotten tremendous positive feedback from the community," he said.
Indeed, Gurnee and Winkler both said they have sought Border Patrol sweeps of their neighborhood in the past because of the growing numbers of Latino men hanging out near their storefront businesses.
"I don't like to see any group discriminated against. . . . but this should have happened a long time ago," Gurnee said. "Nobody complains about the guys who are hard working and just trying to make a living. But there are some scuzzballs around here, too."
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Chicano rights group Coalition for Law and Justice and a third Poway businessman said they are bothered by the sweep.
Mark Snyder, an electrical contractor who works on Midland Road, said one of his employees, about 50 years old, was aggressively grabbed by three SWAT officers and forced face down on the dirt, where he was pinned and had his wrists tied with a nylon rope. He was taken away for questioning. Snyder hasn't seen him since and believes he was deported, even though he said the man had proper documentation to be working in this country.
"That was no way to treat a human being--even if he doesn't have a green card," Snyder said. "In my book, their actions were damn wrong."
Said Linda Hill, executive director of the ACLU in San Diego:
"Our system of justice is based on individualized suspicion. The indiscriminate rounding up of people based on nothing more than skin color or ancestry is not proper law enforcement. It's not constitutional."
She said that, although the sweep may have been efficient, "totalitarian societies are notoriously efficient but that's not the system we chose to live under. And I don't think (the sweep) was necessarily the most efficient. It certainly was the splashiest; it was the easiest; it was the way to look like law enforcement was responding forcefully when it was under pressure to do so. But it's exactly these times when we have to stand firm and show constraint.
"The classic illustration of this was the roundup and internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, which we now accept as a hysterical response and a gross violation of civil liberties," Hill said.
Roberto Martinez, co-chairman of the Coalition for Law and Justice, said his office has received calls from "Mexican families who live in Poway and are very concerned that, anytime something goes wrong, they are going to be picked up for questioning.
"The Sheriff's Department is looking for one suspect but is picking up everyone in sight that fits that description--and it fits half the Hispanic population in San Diego," he said.
"If it was a white suspect, would they have detained 85 white men? That's ridiculous. They wouldn't have," Martinez said.
Perhaps deputies would have, Lipscomb said.
"If a rape victim came to us, and there was a railroad track going through the middle of town, and she said a half-dozen hobos with long hair and who smelled badly had raped her, we would do the same darn thing," Lipscomb said.