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Amid national and statewide efforts to track how often minorities are routinely pulled over by cops, Irvine's police chief faced probing questions from UC Irvine's student leaders about why his patrol and gang-unit officers continually stop university students.
At an April 15 meeting with members of the Associated Students, University of California Irvine (ASUCI) governing council, Chief Charles Brobeck, who runs Irvine's force of about 150 sworn officers, defended his department's policy of stopping cars, especially at night, as necessary to catch criminals.
Once named America's "safest city," Irvine is no crime-free zone, of course. That very morning, Brobeck told students, a "heinous" home invasion had disrupted Irvine's suburban tranquility. And Brobeck's aide, commander Vic Thies, warned students that Irvine cops will continue to look out for gang members-be they "Hispanic, Asian [or] white supremacist"-if they "fit a description" of some crime suspect.
Thies argued that Hondas are "notorious" for being used in Westminster by gang members, and police would be "negligent for not stopping that person at 2 [a.m.]" if he was "not delivering papers." He maintained that police would have probable cause to stop people "dressed the part of the gang member."
But neither Thies nor Brobeck could supply any numbers on how many such gang members reside in Irvine or how many times Hondas have been stopped. Nor did they tell students that it is not a crime to be a gang member or to dress like one.
In the past, Asian students at UCI (now more than half of the undergraduate-student body there) have complained of city police stopping them and taking their pictures for gang files. A notorious incident involved an incoming Asian-American freshman driving to campus with his belongings who was stopped by Irvine police who wanted to photograph him. His father, who was in a following car, objected to the procedure, pre-empting the photographing.
Aram Chaparyan, a former ASUCI president, complained to Brobeck that a fellow student, his "good friend," had been stopped 26 times by police.
Brobeck and Thies laughed, responding, "I'd look at my car and ask, 'How can I change it so I don't get stopped again?'"
Phong Le Cong, who represents information and computer sciences students on the council, asked what Brobeck was doing to combat the "John Wayne Syndrome" when police stop students. He complained that Irvine's finest ask him, "Where you going in such a hurry? Are you high?" when he's returning home from school after studying late on campus. Officers ask some "off-the-wall questions," Cong added.
Brobeck responded, "Time of day dictates what they say." Police get suspicious about why someone is driving around that late, he said, and it's "tough to discern" who's in the car. He insisted, "It's the behavior of the car and the behavior of the driver-nothing more than that."
But civil-liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Alliance Working for Asian Rights and Empowerment (which I helped start) argue that race and ethnicity have everything to do with why drivers are stopped by police. Hard figures are difficult to come by, however. A bill that passed the state Senate Public Safety Committee on April 20 seeks to rectify that.
Senate Bill 78, which was introduced by state Senator Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) and inadequately dubbed by the ACLU as "driving while black or brown" (Asians seem to be stopped the most in Irvine), would mandate the collection of race or ethnicity data for police stops. It's apparently a huge problem; the ACLU of Southern California's 6-month-old Driving While Black or Brown hot line (1-877-DWB-STOP) has already received 1,000 calls. Yet former Governor Pete Wilson vetoed Murray's bill. Observers hope it stands a better chance of passage under Gray Davis.
There are hopeful signs. San Jose and San Diego police departments have voluntarily begun to collect the data the bill mandates (no Orange County department has done the same).
At the federal level, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno earlier this month called on the nation's police departments to compile such racial-profiling data. "We can't duck this issue," she told reporters. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill on April 14 requiring the Justice Department to collect that data from local police departments.
Brobeck even unwittingly acknowledged such problems could arise in his ranks. He revealed to the student leaders that an unnamed Irvine officer "isn't working for us" anymore because "he was making car stops outside of policy" during his probation. Brobeck did not elaborate.
But Irvine's top cop did invite students to call him at his office to file complaints, explaining he didn't want to hear such vague reports later as "my buddy heard such-and-such."