FOUNTAIN VALLEY — A common police practice of compiling photographs and records of people they suspect to be gang members is drawing criticism from some Asian-Americans who contend the practice results in harassment and unfairly stereotypes many young men.
About 15 young men have filed separate complaints with Fountain Valley police, contending that officers in the past year have wrongfully accused them of being gang members and took their photographs without consent for a police "mug" file.
Fountain Valley police declined to discuss the complaints, but Police Chief Elvin Miali said that like many departments in Orange County, his officers use the collection of photographs to track gang members. Police said the mugs are a valuable tool in fighting the increase of criminal activity by gangs in Orange County.
In Fountain Valley, police say, these pictures are taken only with the verbal consent of the person being photographed or as part of the arrest procedure.
But those who question the practice say the police do not request permission to take photos, that some Asian youths are being unfairly branded as gang members and that the practice may at times step on people's civil rights.
"They're trying to say \o7 Asian \f7 is synonymous to \o7 gang\f7 ," said JoAnn Kanshige, whose sons have filed complaints against the Fountain Valley Police Department. "These kids are dressed as well as the \o7 hakujin\f7 (white) kids, yet the Asian kids seem to be pulled over more often."
Kanshige's sons, Mark, 25, and Jason, 18, contend that they are being harassed because of their race and that they are being stopped without probable cause. They and about a dozen others have formed a grass-roots group called the Orange County Asian-American Youth Alliance to address the issue.
The youth alliance has the support of some established community organizations, including the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and the local chapters of the Japanese-American Citizens League. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union are filing for access to Fountain Valley police files on the group members.
"We do think the rights of young men, particularly young minority men, have been abused by the practice of putting their photos in a police mug book," said Paul Hoffman, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.
At the heart of the complaints is the police practice of collecting photographs of people, primarily young minority males, whom they suspect of being gang members. Pictures can be taken even if a person is not arrested or charged.
Some of the snapshots have found their way into the county's state-of-the-art computer system, although Miali says Fountain Valley police only enter photos of those who have been arrested. The database, dubbed General Reporting Evaluation and Tracking, allows 27 county law enforcement agencies to peek at files and photographs of suspected gang members.
The public does not have access to the system, though it is possible that investigators may sometimes show photos from the database to crime victims as part of a photo lineup, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said at a news conference last week.
He added that the database is carefully screened.
"I think the chances of (errors) are slim to none," Capizzi said. "We have safeguards in place. The system doesn't have room for those who don't belong."
Law enforcement officials said compiling gang profiles is necessary to deal with the increasing gang problems caused by the county's 226 gangs and their 13,000-plus members. Gangs are a pressing concern of residents as well; a recent gang information meeting in Fountain Valley drew close to 200 parents and teachers.
It is legal for police to take photos of people in the field as long as they have "probable cause." Police said they do not arbitrarily snap mug shots. Rather, they follow a set of criteria to determine whether a person warrants a picture, they said.
"We have to suspect some type of criminal activity," said Capt. Scott Jordan of the Garden Grove police. "We can't just stop some guy walking down the street."
Besides, economics dictates prudence. "Polaroid films are expensive," said one officer.
Some civil libertarians, however, are not convinced that police exercise proper restraint.
There exists little safeguard against abuses or errors, they said. The practice unfairly stigmatizes those who have never been arrested or charged with a crime, they said, and promotes "guilt by association."
The police practice at times treads the gray area of the Fourth Amendment against illegal search and seizure, said David Goldberger, professor of constitutional law at Ohio State University and former legal director of the Illinois ACLU. "What they are doing is taking it as close to the line as they can."
"In the interest of keeping society safe and protecting individual rights," said Lt. Andrew Hall of the Westminster Police Department, "it's not always a clear line."