Editorial: Jig is up on Bastrop sheriff’s ‘zero tolerance’ traffic sweep

The documents leave little doubt that Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook’s “zero tolerance” traffic sweep in June was a thin guise to round up drivers suspected of being in the country illegally.

In a sense, the plan worked: Deputies concentrated in western Bastrop County, a brown pocket in a largely white county, and arrested 28 people on June 23 for driving-related offenses. All but one of those charged had Hispanic surnames. Federal immigration agents checking the jail log flagged 16 of them for deportation proceedings.

But we have no reason to believe this sting made Bastrop County any safer.

To the contrary, Cook’s actions sent a chilling message to Hispanics throughout the county and neighboring communities, particularly for undocumented residents: Stay out of sight; law enforcement isn’t on your side.

A sheriff’s office planning memo on the traffic sweep, as reported by the American-Statesman’s Sean Collins Walsh, shows the focus of the operation was not on public safety issues, such as drunken driving or drug possession, though a handful of arrests were made for those charges.

RELATED: Traffic crackdown targeted common violations by immigrants.

Rather, the memo lists the top priorities as catching drivers without insurance and without a valid license, which are charges, we note, most likely to ensnare undocumented immigrants. License-related charges alone accounted for three-quarters of those arrested in the operation.

When lawmakers last year passed Senate Bill 4, which requires local authorities to cooperate with federal immigration agents, critics worried the measure would lead to racial profiling of Hispanic drivers as local police felt pressured, or even emboldened, to assist with immigration enforcement.

In June in Bastrop County, we saw it happen.

Americans who were rightly outraged at the Trump administration’s now-abandoned policy of separating migrant parents and children at the border should recognize the traffic sweep in Bastrop County produced a similar result. Adults who are arrested and deported are often separated from their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens. These traumatic separations remove a financial contributor from the household, making families less secure emotionally and financially.

EDITORIAL: Families seeking asylum deserve compassion and due process.

It’s to our nation’s detriment that Congress has failed to produce an immigration-reform package providing such residents a path to seek legal status. But the solution in the meantime isn’t for deputies to separate families through traffic sweeps in Latino communities.

Cook previously told Statesman reporters that arresting people for license infractions and handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation “wasn’t the intent” of the June traffic safety operation, the first such sweep since Cook took office in January 2017. We have a hard time squaring the sheriff’s denial with the priorities listed in the planning memo and the area targeted by the operation.

Moreover, the sheriff must recognize the tone such an operation sets in the current political climate, where even the phrase “zero tolerance” evokes the Trump administration’s separation of families at the border. Immigration advocates tell us that as people heard of the arrests in Bastrop County, undocumented residents in Austin, Del Valle, Manor and Elgin panicked that the ICE raids from 2017 were back.

INSIGHT: ‘Liberating towns.’ Trump’s terms push frontier narrative.

Stoking such fears, whether intentionally or not, does not make Central Texas safer. Quite the opposite.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and his predecessor, Art Acevedo, have long preached the need to keep undocumented immigrants out of the shadows so they feel comfortable reporting crimes and serving as witnesses. Their willingness to cooperate with police makes the whole community safer, but only if they trust that police aren’t looking to set them up for deportation.

We recognize that policing priorities vary by community, and that the focus of Bastrop County deputies will be different from that of, say, Austin police. In any community, however, the top brass should use crime data to set those priorities, focusing on the crimes that present the most pressing public safety concerns.

We also recognize that people driving without a valid license or insurance are violating the law. But, we expect law enforcement’s response to be proportional to the severity of the offense. The law gives officers discretion to issue citations for certain nonviolent offenses instead of booking the person into the jail. Arrests for these infractions not only cost the community — in added jail expenses and lost patrol time while deputies are driving people to jail — but they also make it harder for people to keep the jobs needed to support their families and pay their legal bills.

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As part of its adoption this summer of “Freedom City” resolutions, the Austin City Council recognized discretionary arrests are a matter of economic and racial equity that extends beyond undocumented residents: Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be arrested on citation-eligible offenses in Austin than whites. We urge other Central Texas communities to follow Austin’s lead and develop policies curbing discretionary arrests when a citation will do.

Cook’s traffic sting, in which some drivers were pulled over for failing to use a turn signal or having mud on their license plate, was a cynical ploy to arrest undocumented residents, not an earnest operation to protect and serve the public.

The jig is up. Bastrop County residents can see what their sheriff is doing. They should demand better.

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