The Bellingham Police Department has determined that an officer acted within department policies during a June traffic stop that resulted in a 15-year-old boy being sent to a Tacoma immigrant detention center.
Officer Zackery Serad had been accused of racially profiling Alfredo “Lelo” Juarez, 15, after Serad pulled the teen over for driving on the wrong way of a one-way street on June 20, 2015. Serad called U.S. Customs and Border Protection when he learned Lelo was an undocumented immigrant.
Lelo was taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection officers. He was later sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma before he was released home to his family in Mount Vernon the next night, about 24 hours after the initial traffic stop.
Lelo, along with local civil rights activists, handed police a formal complaint on Sept. 18 that accused police of violating BPD policy by calling Customs and Border Protection, and of breaking federal law for complicity in attempting to deport an applicant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That national policy exempts some immigrants from deportation if they entered the country before age 16.
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In a news release Wednesday, Dec. 9, the city said its internal investigation found that Serad’s stop of Lelo’s vehicle and attempts to confirm his identity were lawful and in compliance with department policies.
Body-camera footage of the traffic stop released in October shows Lelo telling police he is 18 years old and claiming to have Washington and California driver’s licenses. Serad has difficulty verifying his identity through state and local databases and, after about 20 minutes, Serad takes Lelo out of the car and asks about his immigration status. Lelo says he is not a U.S. resident but explains he is applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Serad called Border Patrol within minutes of learning Lelo’s immigration status, thinking, according to police, that Lelo’s identity could be verified through federal databases.
“The outcome of this incident could have been much different had Mr. Juarez been truthful with the officer,” Police Chief Cliff Cook said in the news release Wednesday.
Bellingham Police Department policy on immigration urges officers to recognize “the dignity of all persons, regardless of their immigration status.” Arrests of people whose immigration status is questioned, according to the policy, “shall be conducted in the same manner as those for any other person ... without regard to immigration status.”
Lt. Bob Vander Yacht, BPD spokesman, said that the department used this opportunity to examine the policy and decided no changes were going to be made.
“The policy is good,” Vander Yacht said. “There’s nothing that is going to be altered in the policy.”
Latino Advocacy, a local civil rights activist group, supported Lelo when he handed in the complaint and in subsequent meetings with police. The group has argued that local police should not collaborate with immigration enforcement and put people into deportation proceedings.
Rosalinda Guillen, a representative with Latino Advocacy, said police did not notify them or Lelo’s family prior to announcing that the officer had been cleared. She said they were disappointed that the police went to the media first, calling the move “discouraging, disrespectful to the community and disrespectful to Lelo.”
“In order for us to trust the police, you would think they would work to build relationships with us,” Guillen said.
In September, Latino Advocacy issued a press release that invited members of the media to watch Lelo hand police the complaint. Guillen, when asked how that decision is different from the city’s decision to issue a news release Wednesday, said Bellingham police have a “higher mandate for the community,” and noted that police are “public servants” who have a process in place for dealing with complaints.
Vander Yacht said BPD mailed a letter to Lelo and his attorney Tuesday explaining the decision, with the understanding that the letters might not be seen after the news release was posted.
Maru Mora Villalpando, representing Latino Advocacy, wrote in a press release Wednesday afternoon that the family will file a claim against BPD within the week.