Minorities Tell of Mistrust, Fear of Police


Against a backdrop of growing mistrust between Orange County minorities and police, human rights advocates from around the state told a federally appointed civil rights committee Thursday that local law enforcement officials regularly harass Latino and Asian youths.

As more than 175 people jammed an all-day hearing in Costa Mesa by the California Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, minority leaders, public defenders and civil liberties advocates testified against the police practice of photographing and questioning minors not suspected of crimes. They said a countywide computer database of youths stopped by police is maintained in violation of their civil rights.

But police chiefs of three Orange County cities, along with police investigators and a county assistant district attorney, defended the practice. They called it a necessary tool to fight gang violence and well within the boundaries of California law.


A similar forum was held by committee members in 1993, when widespread complaints of police treatment of minorities in Orange County first came to light.

The all-volunteer committee appointed by the federal civil rights agency has no enforcement power. But federal prosecutors can use its report if they feel action is necessary.

“Being a member of a clique or a group or a gang is not a crime,” Yvette Verastegui, an attorney with the Orange County public defender’s office, told the committee, lambasting police for practices she said coerced young people to agree to photos that later are used against them.

“What the police believe is a consensual encounter is oftentimes what my clients and I believe is not. They feel persecuted. They feel rousted. They feel labeled.”

Of particular concern to people testifying at the hearing is a computer database established in the county in 1992 that holds names and data such as social security numbers, suspected gang affiliations and clothing preferences of more than 20,000 suspected gang members in Orange County. Linking 27 police departments in a single information system, the database is among the most comprehensive and technologically advanced in the state.

But human rights activists at the hearing said it includes thousands of names of youths who are no longer involved with gangs, and charged that it is discriminatory because more than half of the names in the database are Latino.


In addition to the database, most police departments in the county also maintain their own files and photographs of suspected gang members in their communities. By law, those photographs are not shared with other police departments.

As a court reporter took notes on the proceedings and committee members asked sharp questions, one person after another testified that the practice of including suspected gang members in the database offends minorities.

“It’s a ‘We know it when we see it’ kind of approach,” said John Crew, staff counsel to the ACLU of Northern California. “. . . We have been down this road before. In those days they labeled them Communists. In these days it’s gangs.”

Police denied charges of harassment and brutality. Most of the specific allegations brought before the commission have not been proven.

Police called the database of suspected gang members an invaluable police tool. More than 80% of the people in the database admitted their gang affiliations to law officers, police said.

In recent years California courts have awarded police broad leeway to search and photograph suspected gang members, and to use public nuisance laws to keep them from associating with each other.


“We don’t just willy-nilly stop people on the street and write them up in our books,” said Fullerton Police Chief Pat McKinley. There has to be some evidence of criminal activity.”

Pointing to an increase in outreach to communities by police departments throughout the county over the past decade, Garden Grove Police Chief Stan Knee acknowledged a gap still exists between police and minorities.

“We have built some bridges, and certainly the bridges are not wide enough, but they are there,” Knee said. “. . . We’re not perfect, but I think we do respond appropriately.”

But police were heavily outnumbered at the hearing by people who consider themselves their foes.

From an Anaheim Latino rights organization called United Neighborhoods came complaints that police commonly stop young people because of their racial characteristics and dress.

“Our children are being held under a siege of fear by the very people that are sworn to protect us,” said United Neighborhoods chairperson Jessica Castro. “. . . simply because of the way they are dressed, simply because of their color, simply because of their economic situation, they are brutally harassed and beaten.”


An Asian student leader, Nicole Inouye of the Asian-Pacific Student Assn. at UC Irvine, said campus police are more likely to stop and question minority students and are seen “as the enemy, and not necessarily the people who are supposed to protect and serve.”

Clarence Massey of the Orange County NAACP said police often stop young black people in Orange County “for no reason at all.”

After the hours of testimony, some civil rights committee members said they still didn’t know which side was telling the truth, but were convinced of one thing: The gap between police and minorities is wide.

“I feel there have been two different kinds of stories being told at this hearing,” said one committee member, Rose Boon Fua, a San Francisco attorney with the private firm Equal Rights Advocates.

“At the very least, there’s either a substantive problem here or there’s a perception problem in the community. But there is a problem.”