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Is There Racial Profiling in Balcones Heights?

Greg M. Schwartz
gschwartz@sacurrent.com

The Brown Berets attempted to hold a gathering at the Cesar E. Chavez Education and Learning Center on Friday for complainants to offer first-hand testimony of alleged racial profiling incidents in Balcones Heights. But a communication breakdown of some sort led to a meeting where no one showed up. Various second-hand reports have alleged that people have been pulled over in Balcones Heights since December for merely looking Hispanic.

Balcones Heights Police Chief Bill Stannard attributes an increase in traffic violations to the new Department of Public Safety computer system that went online statewide last fall, which allows police to check if vehicles have auto insurance by running their plates. However, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger says the DPS interpretation of the law doesn’t call for lack of insurance alone to be probable cause for pulling someone over.

“Our interpretation is this is designed for use after you’ve pulled a vehicle over [for another reason],” said Vinger. He added that enforcement action is not specifically addressed in the law that created the database, and that the DPS opinion is not binding on other law enforcement agencies.

Stannard originally said he tells his officers to try and have another violation to pull people over, “for a better probable cause.”  He later left a message saying he “insists” no stops be made solely for insurance violations. But this is exactly what happened on December 18, when part-time officer Alan Langford pulled over a pickup truck on the 3300 block of Hillcrest because “a computer check showed the vehicle was not insured.”

Langford’s police report says driver Jaustino Martinez and passenger Sandra Bear failed to identify themselves, leading to detainment by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for further investigation. Bear turned out to be here legally, but Martinez was subsequently deported.

While Balcones Heights is not part of the “287(g)” program that allows participating departments to partner with ICE on immigrations enforcement, the agency’s Criminal Alien Program does allow for anyone who is detained for another reason without proper ID to be referred to ICE as a suspected alien.

“We do not act as ICE agents… the problem with it is we’ve got so many instances from accidents where they [drivers] don’t have insurance… that has spiked the amount of people we’ve picked up,” says Stannard. He noted that many of the drivers in these accidents are not Mexican, but Guatemalan or Honduran (for reasons he has been unable to ascertain). “What’s happening here is most of them… have documentation which is false, or none at all… so then what we do is try to identify them.”

Stannard also says his insurance agent told him that roughly 60 percent of drivers in Bexar County lack auto insurance, which could account for why there may be an unusually high number of traffic violaters being referred to ICE. It would also seem to account for why auto insurance rates in San Antonio are nearly as high as those in cities with higher costs of living such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“We want no part of the 287g program… because I don’t have time for it,” added Stannard. As to allegations that officers have pulled people over and told them it’s because they looked Mexican, Stannard says he wouldn’t stand for such behavior.

“I can guarantee you that doesn’t happen. My own kids are half-Hispanic. If I knew of an officer doing that, I would terminate him,” assured Stannard. He failed to respond to two subsequent messages asking if Langford had been reprimanded for pulling over a vehicle for only lacking insurance.

Posted by Gschwartz on 2/23/2009 6:40:02 PM
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