Decrying a "reign of terror" against Latinos in Southern California, the Mexican American Bar Assn. of Los Angeles County said Monday it was requesting that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno investigate dozens of alleged civil rights violations against Latinos by police, sheriff's deputies and others.
A delegation of Latino lawyers plans to press the point during a meeting Thursday in Washington with Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division and Reno's top civil rights aide. The delegation also plans to request that Jesus Silva Herzog, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, file a diplomatic protest about the alleged abuses, many of which involve Mexican nationals.
Citing a "pattern of impunity by the police," the Mexican American attorneys plan to present the Justice Department with a list dating back to 1987 of more than 30 incidents that have resulted in the deaths of at least 23 Latinos. Most involve shootings by law enforcement authorities, none of whom were prosecuted, although in some cases subsequent civil verdicts faulted police action, according to the bar association.
"The criminal justice system is biased against Latinos," declared Luis A. Carrillo, who was among the lawyers speaking at a Montebello news conference.
The lawyers also cited the much-publicized January shooting of two graffiti taggers by William Masters, a civilian who said he fired in self-defense. Carrillo--who has represented the family of one of those shot--called Masters a "white vigilante." Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti declined to prosecute Masters on murder or manslaughter charges, but on Monday he was convicted of two misdemeanor gun charges.
The attorneys equated the situation prevalent in Southern California today to that existing in the South during the early 1960s, when Washington stepped in and used federal civil rights laws to curb institutionalized abuses against African Americans. More recently, civil rights statutes were used to prosecute Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of motorist Rodney G. King.
But the Latino lawyers bemoaned what they termed an apparent hesitancy by federal prosecutors to use civil rights laws against police and others involved in the alleged mistreatment of Latinos, who now make up 40% of Los Angeles County's population, far outnumbering African Americans.
"It's going to take Janet Reno to come out here and look at some of these cases," said Gregory Moreno, who, like other bar association members, warned that area residents felt increasingly frustrated about the perceived abuses. "The Latino community is not going to stand for this any longer," Moreno said.
Myron Marlin, a Reno spokesman, said the Justice Department had already opened investigations into alleged police misconduct involving Latino victims, including a number of the incidents cited by the bar association. But, Marlin added, Justice officials were willing to discuss other allegations.
"We take all complaints of police misconduct very seriously," Marlin said.
The Latino lawyers were especially critical of Garcetti, who is of Mexican heritage and a member of the Mexican American Bar Assn. During his tenure in office, the bar association charged, Garcetti has demonstrated an unwillingness to prosecute officers--a failure, they said, that has forced their appeal to Reno.
"We'd like to light a fire under the seat of the D.A.'s office," said Yvonne Flores, president-elect of the Mexican American Bar Assn.
Garcetti and his chief spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Monday.
The cases cited by the bar association are a roster of high-profile instances of alleged police abuse, including the fatal LAPD shooting in July of 14-year-old Antonio Gutierrez in Lincoln Heights. Police say the shooting was justified because the teen-ager had brandished a gun at officers. The Gutierrez family has disputed the official version and is pursuing a wrongful death claim against the city.