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Beatings Spur U.S. Investigation and a National Debate

Inquiry: U.S. begins probe after Riverside County deputies are videotaped clubbing two suspected illegal immigrants. Incident touches numerous emotional issues.

April 03, 1996|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN and ERIC MALNIC and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"Our law enforcement agencies need to get the message they don't have a license to use excessive force on defenseless people," Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre said.

But many critics had little sympathy for the immigrants, who apparently sneaked across the border Friday night looking for work in California's agricultural fields. Indeed, they blamed the Mexicans for breaking the law, ignoring the police and endangering lives by swerving down the freeways in a rickety truck at speeds of up to 75 mph.

"[Their pickup] was a rolling death trap, crammed with people and speeding down the freeway in a reckless manner," said Ira Mehlman, a Los Angeles spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Riverside County sheriff's deputies said that the overcrowded pickup tried to ram two cars and that the immigrants tossed beer cans at them during the pursuit. The pickup's camper shell flew off during the chase, which started on Interstate 15 and moved onto the Pomona Freeway.

Fled From Checkpoint

Border Patrol officers tried three times to stop the pickup truck near the Temecula checkpoint. But the driver, who has not been identified, defiantly kept going. So the Border Patrol called on the Riverside County Sheriff's Department to pursue the pickup. Border Patrol officers stopped chasing suspected illegal immigrants after a 1992 pursuit ended in tragedy when a van carrying illegal immigrants crashed near a Temecula school, killing six people.

Citing the potential for such fatal crashes, critics have long called for police agencies to be very selective in using high-speed chases. Monday's beating provided new fodder for that debate, as the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California chapter called for law enforcement agencies nationwide to design new training and implementation policies to make high-speed pursuits safer.

Far too often, spokesman Allan Parachini said, an adrenaline rush pumps up officers so high that "literally, the cops can't stop when the chase does." Instead, they continue their aggressive pursuit with nightsticks or gun butts after they have collared their suspects, Parachini said.

"That may explain why the [deputies] were inexplicably oblivious to the fact that two helicopters were hovering above them" during the brief beating, Parachini added.

The powerful emotional punch of the videos shot from the helicopters--both the deputies' blows and the other immigrants' flight--ricocheted across the country, and over the border as well.

President Clinton called the Justice Department to express his concern over the incident. Gov. Pete Wilson issued a statement urging Californians not to let the beating damage their trust in law enforcement.

Callers to radio station KLSX--who tend to be upscale white men in their 20s and early 30s--agreed with the disc jockeys that drivers should pull over when police signal, program manager Perry Michael Simon said. "If you choose to hit the accelerator rather than the brakes, then you should pretty much expect whatever happens next."

But rock station KPWR racked up calls from listeners who emphasized that the immigrants were frightened human beings who deserved humane treatment. Host Corie Esquivel read one fax that said: "Regardless of what they had done . . . they didn't deserve to be treated like that."

In Mexico City, many agreed, watching the violent video with disgust and sorrow. One taxi driver called it typical of the anti-Mexican sentiment in America known as "Mexico bashing." Mexico's government filed a formal protest with Washington, expressing indignation at the treatment of its citizens.

An official statement from Mexico's foreign ministry warned that the incident could crank up international tensions. "The obvious abuse of authority demonstrated in this case confirms the urgent need to take firm action to eradicate discriminatory attitudes that lead to institutional violence," it added.

Yet to some critics, "obvious abuse" was committed not only by the deputies but also by the smuggler who piled at least 19 people into his rickety pickup, then thumbed his nose at authorities.

"Whether you're legal or illegal, these were still human beings who should not be treated as caged parrots," said Harold Ezell, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the western U.S.

"The Mexican government should be saying from the housetops that smugglers are mistreating the citizens of [their] nation, not saying that these two deputies are mistreating all the Mexican citizens who come here illegally," Ezell said.

The federal investigation launched Tuesday began when FBI officials picked up a copy of the videotape. Federal officials said they will work with Los Angeles County investigators in the probe.

"It is important that the public have confidence that any rights which may have been violated--state, federal or local--be vindicated," U.S. Atty. Nora Manella said.

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