Lemon Grove, our sleepy little suburb, has been the scene of regular, large-scale police actions since July.
Every month or so, our trolley station is the scene of multiple law enforcement agency “sweeps” designed, the agencies say, to find “prolific offenders.” But treatment in these sweeps varies, depending on who you are.
My husband was driving past the Lemon Grove trolley stop a few blocks from our home last July when he stumbled upon what he thought was a military operation.
Since I work for the San Diego office of the American Civil Liberties Union, he called me and said, “You’ve got to get over here right now. There’s something crazy happening at our trolley station.” When I got there, I saw about five or six dozen officers from various agencies, many wearing bulletproof vests that looked like riot gear.
The officers were gathered in bunches around a number of people, all of whom, while I was there, were people of color. Some were seated on the station benches or on the curb in handcuffs. Some were led away to the small concrete park immediately adjacent to the trolley station, where there were waiting police and sheriff cars to take people away.
Knowing that it is an offense to be on MTS property without a trolley ticket, I immediately purchased a card. I then approached one of the officers, who was wearing a San Diego Sheriff’s Department uniform, and asked what was going on. He replied, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re doing a probation/parole sweep.” He didn’t ask me, a middle-aged white woman, whether I was on probation or parole.
As a trolley pulled up, the officers swarmed all doors, blocking the exit of the riders trying to depart. Several officers surrounded departing riders in an intimidating manner. Officers first asked to see riders’ trolley tickets. They then asked some of the riders whether they were on parole or probation. It was unclear to me in the short time I was there whether that question was asked only of people meeting a certain profile. But in talking with people leaving the station, all felt quite strongly that the reason they were stopped and harassed was that they were either a person of color, young, or in many instances, both.
Many were asked what they were carrying in their backpacks or bags, and were asked if it was OK for the officers to search them. Some told me they were asked questions like, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you coming from?” or “Are you a member of a gang?” Many reported that this happened on a frighteningly regular basis, aside from these sweeps.
Many went along with this treatment. But a number of people, on hearing that I worked for the ACLU, wanted us to “stop this bullshit” and help them and their fellow riders go on about their lives without being stopped and questioned as if they are criminals or criminals-in-waiting. On my way home, I saw additional officers spread out throughout Lemon Grove’s downtown area, camped out at a nearby convenience store, and in a strip mall about two blocks away from the trolley station.
The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties agreed that something needed to be done. We instituted guerrilla Know Your Rights sessions on the outskirts of the Lemon Grove trolley station, and will soon be adding other stations where these raids regularly occur.
While we all want to live and travel in safety, the Sheriff Department’s own data on these sweeps show that thousands of people are stopped and inconvenienced, but only a relative handful of citations or arrests are made. As best we can tell, the sweeps are only occurring on the Orange Line, which runs from downtown, through southeast San Diego to El Cajon, and along the Blue Line, only at stops near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Everyone wants to live in a safe and peaceful community. But as Americans, none of us should want to live in a police state, where we can be stopped, questioned, searched and detained without cause or suspicion.
Building trust and mutual respect between officers and community members is key to reforming our broken criminal justice system. Sweeps like Operation Lemon Drop do a disservice to our values and our neighbors.
Rebecca Rauber is communications director at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Rauber’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.