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Orange County Perspective : ACLU-Police Pact Is a Worthy Model : * Settlement in Garden Grove Photography Case Serves All

Any agreement between a police department and the American Civil Liberties Union is worthy of attention. The two usually are adversaries, but their consensus this month on the issue of photographing possible gang members was welcome and is receiving deserved scrutiny not just in Orange County, where the case began, but across the state.

Garden Grove police have agreed to photograph youngsters suspected of being gang members only with their written permission unless there is “reasonable suspicion” that they were engaged in “criminal activity.” Also, police will provide an immediate written explanation of the reasons for their action.

The ACLU, rightly recognizing that gangs are a problem in Orange County, agreed that police can continue to snap away so long as they follow the guidelines.

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The pact, which still must be approved by a federal judge, settles a case that began more than two years ago, when two 15-year-old Vietnamese Americans said that police stopped them outside a store while they were waiting for a ride.

The two were photographed, and police listed their age, height, weight and other information, according to the girls. They were never charged with a crime.

The teenagers, eventually joined by three other youths in a class-action lawsuit, challenged the Police Department’s practice on the grounds that they had done nothing wrong and there was no reason they should be detained. They charged that they were singled out because of their clothing, which police said was similar to that worn by gang members, and their ethnic background.

An additional unfortunate aspect of the incident was the anger it stirred in the Vietnamese community, with several prominent members saying it reflected police discrimination against Vietnamese. Garden Grove is one of several cities in Orange County that have moved toward community policing, a worthwhile innovation that depends on support from residents. Photographing youngsters because of the way they dress or their presence in a perceived “gang neighborhood” is no way to build community trust.

Latinos in Orange County have also questioned police practices in several cases in which they felt members of their community were treated differently than whites would have been. Two years ago, an appeals court ruled that Orange police had infringed on constitutionally protected civil rights by photographing a group of Latino youths suspected of gang involvement but not arrested for any crime.

Police across Orange County have been forced to cope with the increasing diversity of their communities in recent years. They have needed to learn new languages and understand new cultures.

An attorney who has represented many police departments in California, including the Garden Grove police in the photography case, said police should be reassured that they can continue to photograph suspects without fearing lawsuits. That should comfort taxpayers as well, since they wind up paying the bills. The five youths in the Garden Grove case will share an $85,000 settlement.

Anyone photographed in the future can ask to have the snapshots removed from police files. If the request is denied, a volunteer panel will review the decision.

The agreement should also benefit police, who will have guidelines that spell out more clearly what is and is not allowed, rather than being forced to make judgment calls based on hazy outlines of acceptable practices. The Garden Grove settlement could be a worthy model for other cities in Orange County.


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