More than a dozen local community and civil rights organizations today sharply criticized the recent response of R.I. State Police to allegations that the police engaged in racial profiling and improperly detained and transported to immigration officials fourteen people, all Guatemalans, who were stopped in a van on July 11th after the driver failed to use a turn signal. The groups said the incident demonstrated the urgent need for passage of legislation restricting local police from enforcing federal immigration law.

On September 8th, responding to a formal complaint that the ACLU of Rhode Island had filed on behalf of the driver and ten of the passengers, State Police Superintendent Steven Pare said that the trooper involved in the stop “acted professionally and appropriately.” A written response sent to the ACLU that day also rejected the complaint. At today’s news conference, however, the community groups claimed that the State Police response failed to adequately respond to a number of the allegations or to broader community concerns.

Among the points made today by the groups:

  • Even though the investigation discounts any allegations of racial profiling, the State Police response did not explain at all why the trooper, who was on speed radar patrol, chose to leave his post to pull over the driver of this particular vehicle, whose only infraction was failing to use a turn signal, not speeding.
  • Even though passengers in a motor vehicle have no obligation to carry or present identification to the police when stopped, and there was no suspicion of criminal activity, the state trooper demanded identification from them at least three times, and then took action against them for failing to provide any or for providing foreign identity documents.
  • Even though the State Police chief claimed that the passengers were never asked for immigration documents, the report submitted by the trooper himself specifically states that he demanded immigration credentials proving their U.S. citizenship.
  • The state agency’s support of the trooper’s allegedly “appropriate” actions in calling immigration officials to check on the passengers’ immigration status came less than a month after a state police representative misleadingly told a large community forum that the State Police do not seek to enforce immigration laws.
  • The passengers were detained at some length, even though the trooper had observed no illegal conduct among the passengers, and the driver had presented a valid driver’s license and registration.
  • Approval from the state police chief of the troopers’ actions has encouraged a “chill” in the Latino community, where residents are fearful of contacting the police to report crimes lest their own immigration status be investigated.
  • Although a few selected individuals have been allowed to view it, State Police officials have refused to provide to the ACLU or to the community a copy of the videotape made by the trooper of the first five minutes of the traffic stop. The State Police have also refused to release copies of the agency’s general traffic stop enforcement policies.
  • Even though the police response to the ACLU complaint states that it was “undisputed” that the trooper advised the driver of the reason for the traffic stop, a person who has viewed the videotape claims that the tape provides no support for this assertion.

The organizations said that they would actively lobby the General Assembly to pass legislation in 2007 that would restrict the circumstances under which state and local police could seek to enforce immigration law, and to strengthen current state laws against racial profiling. Legislation to that effect has been introduced the past two years, but died in committee.

Among the other organizations joining in the news conference were the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, the Diocese of Providence, the RI Mexican American Association, the ACLU of Rhode Island, and SEIU Local #615.