A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper participated in the Bastrop County sheriff’s controversial “zero tolerance” traffic enforcement operation, which resulted in 24 people being arrested and 14 of them picked up by immigration authorities for deportation proceedings, according to Carlos González Gutiérrez, the Mexican consul for Austin.
González said he confirmed the trooper’s involvement in a Wednesday meeting with Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook, who initially denied that any other police agency was involved in the June 23 operation but then admitted to a DPS role after González noted that police records show at least one person, Jaime Corral Quintero, had been arrested by a state trooper. Quintero has since been deported to Mexico, González said.
“First he said, ‘No, there is no other agency,’” González recounted. “Then he said, ‘Oh, well, yes, yes, yes. One Highway Patrol officer was involved.’”
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger, however, said Thursday that the agency was not involved in the operation and that it regularly patrols the area, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in western Bastrop County. He noted that the DPS arrest occurred about 9 a.m., several hours before sheriff’s deputies began arresting people en masse in an operation that lasted through the evening.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said the possible participation of the state police force would raise additional concerns for critics of the operation who said it amounted to racial profiling and was a consequence of Senate Bill 4, the new state law aimed at banning so-called sanctuary cities that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement.
“The idea that the state is going to cooperate and maybe even participate in a racial-profiling effort by the Bastrop sheriff is beyond the pale,” said Rodriguez, who is the policy chair for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “It’s bad public policy for the state to get involved in local matters like this, especially when it comes to the most divisive issue we faced” in the last legislative session, he said.
Rodriguez said he plans to ask the DPS for details about its involvement in the operation.
Cook did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Three deported so far
The operation, which involved five sheriff’s deputies, centered on the area around the Stony Point neighborhood, whose residents have since said they felt they were targeted. While Bastrop County is majority white, the neighborhood is overwhelmingly Latino.
In the operation, deputies pulled over people for mostly minor traffic violations such as changing lanes without signaling or having obscured license plates. They took drivers to the Bastrop County Jail if they discovered an arrestable offense during the traffic stop. In all, they issued 63 citations and warnings and arrested 24 people, mostly for driving without a license, Cook said previously. All but one of the motorists arrested had Hispanic surnames.
Once they were booked into jail, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement notified the sheriff’s office that it wanted to pick up 14 of the drivers for suspected immigration violations.
González said new information from ICE and from the sheriff show that, so far, three people have been deported to Mexico, four have been sent to immigrant detention centers, five were released on their own recognizance with future ICE proceedings scheduled, and two remain in county jail to be tried for state crimes.
Quintero was pulled over for not having a front license plate on his white pickup and told the trooper he did not have a license. The trooper then discovered that Quintero had warrants for driving without a license and without insurance and arrested Quintero for driving without a license, a Class C misdemeanor.
Sheriff defends operation
González said his meeting with Cook, a Republican and a former head of the Texas Rangers, was “cordial, though chilly.”
The sheriff, he said, was “emphatic” that the operation was not intended to target immigrants and that it was a routine law enforcement tactic.
“He said that he was committed to enforcing the law without regard to the consequences,” González said. “He said that if his officers pull over someone who was driving without a driver’s license, that their obligation was to arrest the driver.”
González said he pressed Cook to encourage his officers to use discretion when dealing with people driving without a license. Many of the immigrants arrested, he noted, were longtime U.S. residents who told the consulate that they wanted to get Texas driver’s licenses but could not.
Cook said his officers often don’t arrest people for driving without a license because it would take hours out of their day and he has few officers to patrol the county. During the operation, however, they had the resources to arrest people en masse by having additional deputies on hand and vans to take detained motorists to jail.
González offered to have his office train Bastrop County deputies to recognize valid forms of Mexican ID cards, something it has done for the police departments in Austin and San Marcos and will soon do for Waco police.
The sheriff, he said, was noncommittal in response and noted that his deputies’ training hours were limited.
“I tried to convince him, but he did not commit to do that,” González said. “He said that he would analyze it, but I did not have the impression that he was excited about the idea.”
Interfaith group outraged
Cook said he planned the operation after a group of civic leaders requested increased law enforcement presence in the area. But after the arrests, the group, Bastrop Interfaith, criticized Cook, saying the operation violated the community’s trust in the sheriff’s office and was not what they had asked for.
Cook met with the group and Stony Point residents on Thursday in his offices.
One of the residents who was arrested and is facing deportation proceedings, they told Cook, had built his Stony Point house with his own hands 25 years ago and lived there with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“It’s just devastating to the family,” Edie Clark of Bastrop Interfaith said. “He may be deported back to Mexico, and his wife has to decide: Does she go with him or does she stay here where she has children and grandchildren that rely on her?”
The group presented Cook with requests: soften his zero tolerance approach to traffic operations, stop targeting Stony Point and encourage deputies to inform people they pull over that they are not required to answer questions related to immigration status.
Cook committed to telling officers to use discretion when deciding whether to arrest motorists and to enforcing traffic laws evenly throughout the county, not just Stony Point, members of the group said after the meeting. But he did not commit to instructing his deputies to inform drivers about their rights during roadside questioning.
“It’s very positive that he agreed to meet with us,” Clark said. “I think that will go a long way to start moving forward.”