Local civil rights activists are accusing Bellingham police of racially profiling a 15-year-old boy during a June traffic stop that eventually landed the teen in a Tacoma immigrant detention center.
Police pulled over Alfredo “Lelo” Juarez, 15, for driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street near downtown Bellingham at 10:40 p.m. on June 20, 2015. Lelo did not have a driver’s license, told police he was 18 and, when asked, said he was an undocumented immigrant, according to the police report.
Officers, unable to verify his identity, called U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who took Lelo into custody and later sent him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, police say. He was released and brought home to his family in Mount Vernon the next night, family friends say, about 24 hours after the initial traffic stop.
On Friday morning, Sept. 18, Lelo walked into the Bellingham Police Department alongside representatives from several activist groups and handed police a formal complaint. The complaint accuses officers of racial profiling by asking Lelo his immigration status and violating Bellingham Police Department policy when they called Customs and Border Protection. It also accuses police of breaking federal law for complicity in attempting to deport an applicant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a national policy that exempts some immigrants from deportation if they entered the country under the age of 16.
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“What we’re trying to highlight here is that this collaboration between local police and immigration enforcement should not happen. This is the road to detention.” said Maru Mora Villalpando, who represents an activist group called Latino Advocacy. “We should not have local police putting people into deportation proceedings.”
The Bellingham Police Department policy on immigration says all officers should recognize “the dignity of all persons, regardless of their immigration status.”
The policy explains that when a person is suspected of an infraction or criminal violation, the officer “should take reasonable steps to determine the person’s identity through valid identification or other reliable sources,” adding, “Arrests, Identifications and Bookings of persons of questionable immigration status shall be conducted in the same manner as those for any other person ... without regard to immigration status.”
Police spokesman Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said the department will listen to the concerns brought up by the Whatcom Civil Rights Project, Latino Advocacy and others and talk about the best way to handle situations in the future.
“I can’t help but feel that this is a positive thing, that we’re being asked the questions that we should be asked,” Vander Yacht said. “We’re willing to take a hard look at the situation.”
He said calling Customs and Border Protection is not typically something police consider right away during a traffic stop, but police “can certainly engage with (Customs and Border Protection), dependant upon the circumstances.”
In this case, Officer Zackery Serad wrote in his report that he could not identify Lelo based on the information provided by the teen. Serad also wrote that he could not contact any family because Lelo provided no contact numbers. Though Lelo told the officer he was the car’s registered owner, the registration came back to somebody else. The officer noted Lelo was not being detained for his immigration status but for a driving offense, and cited police policy before writing that he called Customs and Border Protection for help identifying him.
Lelo admitted Friday that he should not have lied to the officer.
“I thought I was going to get away with it,” he said. “But that was a bad mistake that I made.”
Rosalinda Guillen, a local activist, said she was in contact with Lelo’s family when he was being held in the detention center.
“His family went through 12 hours of hell trying to figure out what happened to their son,” Guillen said.
The Latino Advocacy members said there were several discrepancies in the police report compared to their understanding of what happened. When asked what kind of discrepancies there were, Villalpando said the officer never, in fact, asked for the contact information for the parents.
Nobody, however, had requested the police report prior to this week; police provided it to them after learning of the Friday demonstration.
Vander Yacht said the police officer who stopped Lelo last summer wore a body camera. Vander Yacht has seen that footage and said it supports what was written in the police report. He also noted that Lelo was “very respectful and nice” to the officer. If Lelo had told the truth about the age, Vander Yacht said, the outcome would have been much different.
“If he had told us that he was 15 years old and he didn’t have a driver’s license, our direction would have been a 180,” Vander Yacht said. “We would have reached out to find someone, a parent or guardian, to help us with the situation.”
The Bellingham Herald has submitted a public records request for the body camera footage. Police had not released it as of late Friday afternoon.
There is no set timetable for police reviewing the complaint. Depending on what the police department finds, consequences can range from no action, a verbal or written reprimand, or an officer being fired.
The thought process that led to Customs and Border Protection being called on the case remains unclear, Vander Yacht said.
“We’re certainly not happy to hear that Lelo ended up where he ended up,” Vander Yacht said. “We want to correct this.”
Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.