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Alamance County Sheriff Johnson's supporters turn out in show of solidarity at trial

Alamance County Sheriff Johnson's supporters turn out in show of solidarity at trial


WINSTON-SALEM — Bill and Linda Watkins of Alamance County said Tuesday they didn't believe Sheriff Terry Johnson and his department had targeted Latinos unlawfully, as alleged by the U.S. Justice Department in a lawsuit it filed in 2012.

The Watkinses were among Johnson's supporters present during the first day of trial at the Hiram H. Ward Federal Building. The day's testimony included former deputies' accounts of a checkpoint set up about a half-mile from where the Watkinses live on N.C. 49. They said whenever they see a checkpoint, it makes them feel safer because it shows them that law enforcement agencies are fighting crime.

Linda Watkins plans to attend almost every day of the trial, which is expected to last 10 days. She doesn't believe Johnson treats people differently based on their race. After the first court recess, she shared her opinions regarding some of the testimony she had heard.

“What stands out to me is that it seems the previous deputies have an ax to grind,” she said.

Sammy Moser of Burlington was also among Johnson's supporters in the courtroom Tuesday. Moser said he preferred to see the DOJ support local law enforcement instead of filing lawsuits against Johnson, and he believed arguments made during the first day of trial by the DOJ against Johnson were “very vague.”

N.C. Immigrant Rights Project Executive Director and Attorney Martin Rosenbluth represents at least three witnesses that may be called to the stand. He recently moved his office from Durham to Burlington. Rosenbluth said it was alarming for him to hear testimony from former deputies that booking procedures at the jail changed after the sheriff's department implemented the 287(g) program in 2007. Rosenbluth also said he believed evidence at the trial will expose how Latinos have been unlawfully targeted, and that he hoped Latinos can get justice from the court proceedings as they unfold.

County Attorney Clyde Albright also attended the first day of trial. County Manager Craig Honeycutt said earlier this week he may attend a few days of the trial.

Fairness Alamance member Ben Ansbacher also was in attendance Tuesday. He declined to comment about the case. Fairness Alamance is a local immigrant rights group that has supported the DOJ's case against Johnson and his department.

The United States vs. Terry Johnson isn’t the most high profile police discrimination case the DOJ has pursued in recent years, but it’s one of the few that has gone to trial. According to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, from 2009 to 2012, it opened 15 policing investigations, issued eight letters of misconduct, and reached 10 agreements for comprehensive reform of police departments.

According to the DOJ, the Civil Rights Division entered into court-enforceable agreements with six jurisdictions in 2012 to address serious policing challenges, the most agreements reached in a single year.

In June 2010, the DOJ first notified Alamance County and Johnson of an investigation into allegations of discriminatory policing and unconstitutional searches and seizures. On Sept. 18, 2012, the department issued a formal findings letter detailing ACSO’s alleged discriminatory policing practices against Latinos. Johnson has repeatedly denied the allegations.

The DOJ invited the Sheriff’s Office in 2012 to negotiate a court-enforceable agreement to remedy the alleged violations. The Sheriff’s Office declined the offer, which led to the DOJ’s decision to sue Johnson in December 2012.

On June 17, the DOJ and attorneys representing Johnson failed to reach a settlement agreement during a mediation conference in Durham. Settlement conferences are standard procedure before a case goes to trial.

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