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Latin Kings file complaint with DOJ alleging civil rights violations by GPD

by Jordan Green

Citizen complaint comes at time when fired officers allege employment discrimination

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Guilford College student Andy Young goes for a pass as North Carolina Latin King leader Jorge Cornell and his daughter look on during a friendly football game at Center City Park in November 2008. (photo by Jordan Green)

A Durham-based social justice organization has filed a complaint with the US Justice Department alleging that the Greensboro Police Department has engaged in a pattern of discrimination against the North Carolina chapter of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.

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Based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the complaint alleges that the police department’s “gang suppression” strategy intentionally targets the group commonly known as the Latin Kings because of their race, color and national origin. The complaint, which was filed on Oct. 30, alleges that the Latin Kings have been subjected to a pattern of unlawful traffic stops and searches and unjustified arrests, that members have been charged with serious crimes that are later dismissed for lack of evidence, that officers in the gang enforcement unit have been going to members places of employment to get them fired and have used excessive force during arrests.

Many of these alleged abuses have been richly documented in stories published by YES! Weekly over the past two and a half years. The complaint filed by the Latin Kings comes at a time when three black and Latino police officers who have made allegations of discrimination and retaliation have been fired. AJ Blake, who was assigned to the gang unit at one time, has publicly criticized its practices.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, compared the Latin Kings’ filing to a complaint filed by a local chapter of the NAACP against the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland alleging racial discrimination in which the Justice Department found that police subjected African Americans to different treatment during stops.

“A memorandum of agreement was reached between the Justice Department and the Montgomery County Police Department based on much less compelling evidence,” Earls said. “The allegations here are more severe based on a longstanding pattern of treatment by the gang unit. I think we are raising very serious claims and they’ll take a close look at it.”

Earls served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Clinton. In addition to her work at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, she serves on the NC Board of Elections.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, including law enforcement agencies and hospitals. The law allows individuals who feel they have been subjected to discrimination to file an administrative complaint with the Justice Department as an alternative to resorting to litigation in the federal courts.

“I think it’s worth noting that these are things that could have caused grounds for a civil suit seeking monetary damages,” Earls said. “Jorge and the Latin Kings made a deliberate choice to pursue this remedy rather than litigating because they wanted to make sure the police department works for the entire community.”

North Carolina Latin Kings leader Jorge Cornell said during a press conference at the Beloved Community Center last week that he decided to found the group after an incident he witnessed in which four Hispanics got into a vehicle accident near the Greensboro Coliseum and ran from the scene and Greensboro police officers responded by going inside a nearby restaurant and arbitrarily arresting four Hispanics who had nothing to do with the accident. Cornell said the Latin Kings were harassed by Greensboro police almost from the inception of the North Carolina chapter, but that scrutiny increased dramatically after he made a call for peace among street organizations in the summer of 2008.

“I’ve tried every single avenue in this community to fix the wrongs done by the police department,” Cornell said. “I’ve filed report after report with the human relations department. We’ve sat down with ministers, and they’ve talked to the police, but they’ve broken their promises. We’ve sat down with city council members, but everything falls on deaf ears. Please understand that this is not just an Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation thing. This is for the whole community. We just happen to be the ones standing up.”

Following a community meeting at Oka T. Hester Park in which police Chief Ken Miller defected questions from an African-American captain who alleges he was fired for discriminatory reasons, the chief dismissed the Latin Kings’ complaint.

“My position is they’ve reached out to [the] Justice [Department] like they’ve done before to say, ‘We’re a street gang and we’re being picked on,’” Miller said. “We’ll see what they say.”

This is the first and only complaint that the Latin Kings have filed with the Justice Department, although Cornell took part in a delegation to the agency headquarters in Washington with a number of black and Latino officers in September. The Justice Department began an investigation of the police department in 2009 to look into allegations of employment discrimination and underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics on the force. The results of that investigation are not known. YES! Weekly is currently seeking correspondence between outside counsel for the city and the federal agency through a public records request.

In response to a request for comment, Assistant City Manager Denise Turner released a statement maintaining that “the city of Greensboro does not tolerate discrimination against any class of persons by city employees and the management fully enforces the policy against discrimination. The Greensboro Police Department working with the human relations department aggressively investigates and pursues all complaints of inappropriate treatment by Greensboro police officers through the citizen review complaint committee.”

The statement also indicates that the city “will cooperate fully with any investigation from the Department of Justice but we feel confident they will find that the behavior of the city of Greensboro and the Greensboro Police Department mimics our commitment to the equal treatment for all residents of the city.”

Earls said her organization has chosen to not publicly release the complaint at this time so that the city will have an opportunity to respond to it and provide data to the Justice Department. That process is likely to take a couple months, she said.

The complaint also alleges that the police department’s internal process to investigate citizen complaints and the outside complaint review committee “do not constitute an adequate complaint procedure.”

Anthony Wade, the city’s human relations director, said last week that he had not been aware of the complaint.

“The complaint review committee has been a mechanism that’s been used in responding to citizens’ complaints and working within city departments between the police and the city manager’s office,” he said. “That’s all I can actually say without knowing more about the specific complaint.”

Among the remedies suggested in the complaint is an immediate cessation of harassment; dismantling or retraining the gang unit and abandoning the suppression policy towards gangs; installing mobile video and audio equipment in all patrol vehicles; a requirement that officers provide detailed documentation for each traffic stop, including information about race of the driver, whether consent to search the vehicle was requested and granted, and whether a nonconsensual search was conducted. The complaint also calls for stronger citizen oversight of the police department, including granting the complaint review committee the power to subpoena witnesses, access to officers’ personnel files and the ability to initiate investigations based on media reports.

A grassroots group calling for police accountability and professionalism will hold a meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Bethel AME Church, at which citizens will have an opportunity to file additional complaints based on racial and other types of discrimination with the Justice Department. Organizers say they expect representatives from two different section of the Justice Department to be present at the meeting. Mayor Bill Knight, City Manager Rashad Young and Chief Ken Miller have also been invited, although the chief has a conflicting community meeting scheduled at Lewis Recreation Center.

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