Footage Shows Feds Using Ethnic Slur During Traffic Stop | Off Message

Footage Shows Feds Using Ethnic Slur During Traffic Stop

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Body camera footage from a Franklin County sheriff's deputy - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Body camera footage from a Franklin County sheriff's deputy

During a traffic stop last summer, a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy quickly discovered the driver of a green Dodge truck couldn’t speak English. Through a translator, the deputy also learned that the man didn’t have a Vermont driver’s license. He radioed for backup from a “Romeo unit.”

Within 10 minutes, U.S. Border Patrol agents were standing next to the green truck.

The deputy held up a document for the feds to see.

“This is all I have for ID on him,” the deputy said.

“Yeah, he’s wet,” said a grinning Border Patrol agent, apparently employing a racial epithet.

Advocates say the incident, which was captured on the body cameras of two Franklin County sheriff's deputies, illustrates a major problem in Vermont: Local cops are reporting undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, even though immigration law isn’t in their purview.

The collaboration runs afoul of the state's "model" Fair and Impartial Policing policy. But agencies around the state have adopted differing versions of that policy, which consists of both mandatory and optional rules. Franklin County Sheriff Robert W. Norris did not respond to inquiries Friday about his department's policy.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the footage shows “how quickly a stop of someone with brown skin from a different country — how quickly federal immigration authorities are brought into that situation without any real need to do so.”

The ACLU and the Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice obtained the body cam footage through a public records request. The driver in the video, Luis Cordova Ordaz, was in the truck with his father, according to Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, and the traffic stop landed both of them in federal custody.

“He’s still being detained with immigration detention, and he’s likely being deported in the next week or two,” Lambek said of Ordaz. 

In the footage, U.S. Border Patrol agents can be heard referring to the driver as “wet” and talking about whether a Spanish-speaking woman on the scene was “a wet.” Lambek said the agents were abbreviating the epithet “wetback,” which has been used to describe undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

“Whether he’s using a shortened racial slur or the full slur, it’s absolutely unconscionable and it’s a window into the dehumanization in immigration enforcement,” Lambek said.

Stephanie Malin, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, would not directly address the use of the term. “We are looking into the matter although we cannot discuss the details of it at this time,” Malin said in a written statement. “U.S. Border Patrol agents strive to treat all individuals they encounter with dignity and respect and will enforce the nation’s laws while preserving the civil rights and civil liberties of all people with whom they interact.”

Lambek and other advocates said that the traffic stop is part of a larger trend.

“This window into the reality of rampant collaboration between Vermont law enforcement and [President Donald] Trump’s deportation agents demonstrates the need for why now, more than ever, we need to have strong policy to protect the rights of immigrant Vermonters and protect the principle of equal treatment under the law,” Lambek said.

The ACLU and Migrant Justice are trying to bring public attention to the issue because they say the state is on the verge of weakening protections for immigrants.

A law passed earlier this year requires Vermont’s Criminal Justice Training Council to “update” the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, which was approved in 2016, “to provide one cohesive model policy for law enforcement” around the state to adopt.

Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), the lead sponsor of the legislation, said the idea was to create a single, mandatory policy for all police in the state. LaLonde’s legislation requires officials to coordinate with Migrant Justice as they update the policy, but Lambek said law enforcement used the update as an opportunity to roll back protections that were in the previous version of the policy.

“This goes well beyond a simple update,” said Lambek. “This is proposing sweeping cuts to the policy.”

Officials at the Criminal Justice Training Council did not respond to an interview request Friday. Diaz, the ACLU attorney, said there’s no question that the previous policy was stronger than the one officials are considering now.

“We don’t believe that the legislature envisioned a watering-down of the protections … That’s what’s happened, unfortunately, in some areas,” Diaz said. “There have been many changes, some for the better, some for the worse.”

The legislature separately passed a bill this year that prohibits formal agreements under which federal immigration authorities deputize local police to enforce civil immigration law.

Lambek and Diaz said law enforcement officials are refusing to adopt policies that prohibit local law enforcement from collaborating with federal immigration authorities, as Franklin County deputies did during the August 29 traffic stop.

Lambek said the proposed changes are driven by the Trump administration’s letters to local jurisdictions threatening to cut off federal funding to “sanctuary cities” and communities with similar policies.

"One word: Trump," Lambek said. "That’s the driving force behind these changes. It’s the state of Vermont bending over backwards in order to accommodate itself to the empty threats from the Trump administration." 

The Criminal Justice Training Council is expected to vote on the new model policy at a meeting December 12 in Pittsford.

See the full, unedited bodycam video here.

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