Impound for Pound
By Diego DuBois
Colton Police Chief Bob Miller is adamant about his department’s policy: “We do not racially profile,” he declared to a crowd of over a hundred mostly Latino Colton residents at a community meeting held this past December.
He had a difficult time, however, convincing his audience.
The residents had gathered to petition the chief to change the way the city impounds vehicles and to quit the alleged targeting of Latinos for traffic stops.
In a city with a budget shortfall of $5 million, any revenue that can be generated means avoiding painful cuts in city personnel. And with the city in possession of its own impound yard, which charges fees of up to $50 per day in addition to the $200 administrative fee to release vehicles, the police department has arguably become a revenue-generating department.
Add into the mix the 1994 piece of legislation that explicitly banned driver’s licenses for the undocumented and another law, passed in the same year, that authorizes the impounding of cars driven by the unlicensed for 30 days, and you have the recipe for a cash cow, a witch hunt whose target is anyone that “looks illegal,” which in the Inland Empire can translate to “pull over anyone who looks brown.”
A woman who gave a testimony at the December meeting explained exactly how it works. “I was stopped three times in the past three weeks by the motorcycle cop. The police stopped me and he said it was because of something hanging from my mirror. He said, ‘Gimme your license,’ and when I gave it to him, he left. The next week, he stopped me because I looked at him as he was giving a ticket to a woman and he was annoyed by that. I wasn’t pulled over for five seconds when he asked for my license. When I gave it to him, he left, angry that he couldn’t take my car. He stopped me again [and] I asked him, ‘Why did you stop me three times?’ Another one came and they took me out of the car because my license was in the back, and when they saw it they left.”
The California Vehicle Code prohibits officers from initiating traffic stops solely to determine whether the driver is properly licensed.
The December forum was held as a means for the community to voice their concerns about the conflict of interest arising from owning an impound yard and to ask the chief to examine his department’s practices of making traffic stops without probable cause. The chief was also presented with policy recommendations, including ending racial profiling and allowing unlicensed drivers 30 minutes to have a licensed driver retrieve the vehicle so as to avoid the hefty impound fee.
The chief, while denying that racial profiling was going on, promised to consider the recommendations and present his decision at a subsequent meeting, originally scheduled for this Saturday. The meeting was abruptly cancelled with only five days’ notice, leaving members of Latinos Unidos de Colton, a community and advocacy group, feeling snubbed.
Nonetheless, some progress appears to have been made. “Yes, there has been quite a large change,” says Latinos Unidos member Ruben Baez, referring to the decrease in traffic stops since the forum. Latinos Unidos de Colton formed to combat police discrimination in the city, and is also looking at the high utility rates residents pay. “But there are still one or two or three [officers] that continue [to make pretextual stops], and we’ve continued to hear complaints about the officers.”
Colton is famous as the home of Old West lawman Wyatt Earp, and it appears that, despite having a Latino mayor and Latinos making up a five-out-of-six majority on the city council, a “Wild West” mentality arguably continues to prevail among the ranks of law enforcement.