Operation Pipeline Meets Gary Webb
...by Mark Drake
Gary Webb is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked for years with the San Jose Mercury News before moving to his present position with the California legislature. How did CLMP manage to score such an illustrious speaker for our backwoods annual forum?|
Well, when Webb took his job with California's Joint Legislative Task Force on Government Oversight, he was authorized to follow up on reports indicating that the California Highway Patrol was "profiling" Latinos along I-5, pulling them over routinely and subjecting them to vehicle searches in hopes of intercepting an occasional Mexican drug smuggler. In the course of his investigation, he came across a reference to CLMP in a CHP grant document - something to the effect that the Department needed to field PR officers to neutralize bad press generated by CLMP. So he located us early this year and came up from Sacramento to confer, taking home a bundle of documentation from our files. And in anticipation of the release of the Task Force report, CLMP invited him to describe its conclusions at our forum, which he graciously consented to do.
The origin of his investigation was the observation that the back pages of some Central Valley newspapers carried repeated, matter-of-fact briefs noting significant highway drug busts by the CHP along I-5 - essentially always featuring arrestees with Spanish names. When asked about this, a colleague in the Justice Department told Webb, "Oh, they're profiling." What's that? "Well, they've got these special units of the CHP and they're pulling Latinos off the road and tossing their cars." Webb expressed surprise, saying he thought that was illegal. The DOJ guy replied, "Well, we thought so too, but they're doing it anyway." So Webb spent the next year investigating the program.
When the CHP was first questioned about it, they asserted that this was nothing more than an officer-safety program - designed to prepare CHP personnel for the kinds of people they might encounter in routine traffic stops who might turn out to be heavy duty drug thugs. And that there was nothing involving racial profiling in it. Webb requested permission to attend a typical training session for this program, and that was granted.
His experience at the training camp (held at a CDF facility near Susanville) persuaded him that this was emphatically not an "officer safety program" and resulted in his requesting statistical information from the CHP. The Department responded that, although they'd like to be of assistance, the kind of information requested, "like how many Latinos have been arrested and how do you decide who to pick and what kind of crime are they being pulled over for; that would all endanger officer safety, so we're really sorry, we can't help you."
Fortunately, circumstances soon conspired to apply pressure in favor of release of the information. The new Governor was not known at that time to be as safely in the pocket of police as his predecessor, the (Spanish-surnamed) Speaker of the Assembly felt this was information the legislature needed in order to do their job, and the Commissioner of the CHP was up for confirmation. They became very cooperative. The records were forthcoming.
"These were records of these units attached to this interdiction program called 'Operation Pipeline,' and it was explained in the report that there are officers assigned to each CHP unit that work with this Pipeline program, and then there are roving bands that go around," Webb said.
After a clownish five-day episode in 1993, the first experience CLMP had with Pipeline was 1995's "Operation Harvest Sweep." Webb confirmed CLMP's conclusion concerning the reason for the name change the following year to "Operation Northcoast." We had assumed that the obvious conflict between the name "Harvest Sweep" and the Department's straight-faced declarations to the press and public that this was a "traffic safety program" was causing CHP PR officers to develop flushed complexions. Webb said, "The first name for the program [in this area] was Operation Harvest Sweep, and as one officer explained to me they had some PR problems with the idea of a 'sweep' so they changed it to 'Northcoast.' "
His experience with the training and the documentation also reflected CLMP's experience: Pipeline stops tend to be made for things like bad license plate lamps, having a trailer ball obscuring the rear plate, anything hanging from the rear view mirror (ostensibly obstructing vision). The alleged reasons for the stops are not pursued and seldom written up: "The idea of this program is to just get in the car - they were very blunt about that." Supervisors' reports made it abundantly clear that the Pipeline officers were under a lot of pressure to pull people over and conduct searches. Some sample quotes from these reports were:
"You are bringing up the number of stops made per day, but you're not there yet. A full day on the road should yield 8-10 stops per day, if you do not get a load. Work on it."
"Contacts are up. I would like to see 10 stops a day. Searches are up also but without results. Keep trying!" (Webb notes that this officer stopped at least 81 cars and conducted 30 searches in the month his supervisor is criticizing.)
"Keep your enforcement contacts up and increase the odds of a find."
"Keep banging away and keep the total contacts up. . .try to keep those contacts up to increase your seizure possibilities."
"Generate as many stops as possible."
"Continue to make copious amounts of stops."
"Remember to stop anything that comes your way."
(These admonitions help illuminate comments like the one I heard toward dusk over a CHP radio during the '93 clown act while I was waiting to interview a young fellow in a small pickup who was being stopped in Garberville. The radio blared: "Here comes one with his parking lights on. Looks like a good stop."
It turned out the lad in the pickup had driven up from LA for his vacation immediately after reinstalling his front bumper, and had not reattached his front license plate. He hadn't been troubled for it between LA and Humboldt County, but was now being stopped for the second time in ten miles! The present cops had seen him northbound around Benbow and had felt it appropriate to make a U-turn to nail him for this wanton "safety violation" although their co-workers had got him a few miles south. On finding he was from LA, they observed to him that this was a suspiciously long way to go for a vacation.)
Webb continued: "On the other hand, officers who do make a lot of stops and make a lot of searches are held up as examples of the kind of officers the rest of them should be. These are also from the Supervisors' comments, and keep in mind [as I read these] they're telling us this is an 'officer safety program;' this has nothing really to do with drug interdiction:
'It appears you're beating the bushes for drugs and money.'
'Your numbers indicate you're certainly looking for dope.'
'Out of your enforcement contacts, you searched 34 vehicles.'
'You searched 30 vehicles this month, equaling about one helf of those stopped. I know you are a hard-working, diligent officer, and it's only a matter of time before you hit the 'big one' again.'
'Your overall enforcement activity is a strong indicator that you are out there stopping people who display drug indicators.' "
He went on to describe the script for the interaction following these pullovers (in detail which was richly familiar to readers of CLMP newsletters):
"The way they do it is very interesting and this was taught to us in this class. They stop you for just about anything. . .and they engage you in a conversation that goes something like this: 'Where are you going? You gonna be there long? Who are you going to see? When you gonna be back? How come you don't have much luggage with you; that's kind of a long trip?'
"They engage you in a conversation that's supposed to be natural. And if you have passengers in the car, they're taken away and interrogated separately, and the stories are compared. If one of you said you were going to see John Doe and the other said you were going to see Bob Doe, that's an indicator.
So then they try to get you to consent to a search. They'll give you your license and registration back - and that's a very important point legally; because from then on, your traffic stop is over with. In the eyes of the courts it's a consensual conversation from here on out because you've got your license back, you've got your registration back, and you're just having a chat with Officer Friendly.
"And at that point they say, 'Well, you know we've been having lots of problems here with people hauling guns and drugs on this highway and we're just trying our best to keep this stuff off the roads."
"And if you're like most people, you say, 'Gee, that's really good. Glad to hear it.'
"And then they say, 'Well, we're glad you see it that way. You're not hauling any guns or drugs are you?' And you go, 'Oh! Of course not!' And they say, 'Well, you don't mind if we take a look then, do you?'
"That's the way it works, and pretty [much] everybody says, 'Go ahead.'
"But they don't really need that. . .if you've got these indicators - like fast food wrappers in the car, things like a single key in your ignition, that's an indicator. If you've got a map with cities circled on it, that's another indicator. If you've got pillows and blankets."
During his research, he found that the CHP had used some of the federal grant money that supports Pipeline to install a video camera in a CHP unit working out of Needles, California (on I-40, a main route which could plausibly be expected to carry significant contraband). They made well over 100 hours of videotapes of these stops. Apparently the CHP never bothered looking at these tapes, but when Webb found out about them, he pulled 15 of them more or less at random and watched about 30 hours of stops. He says:
"The amazing thing is that they weren't finding hardly anything. Even though the CHP purposely doesn't keep records of how many times they search cars and don't find anything - they keep records of when they search them and do - one of the things the supervisors' reports showed is that they go for a long, long time and stop many cars without finding anything. And here's some examples from what they had written:
'You have a high volume of stops with no hits. Keep at it; it will happen.'
'Remain patient; I'm sure as often as you search and the volume of vehicles you stop, the load is going to turn up.'
'Despite your 43 searches, no drugs were found.'
"Keep in mind during these searches, these aren't little Let-me-stick-my-head-in-your-car-and-see-if-there's-anything-in-there [searches]. I was watching them pull people out of their cars, stand them alongside the road, take everything out of their trunk, empty their suitcases on the side of the road, go through the suitcases, lift up the seats. There was an officer that was fairly famous up in Siskiyou County. He used to carry around an electric screwdriver and he'd take the door panels off, fenders, heater ducts. And when you consent, you consent to this. That's part and parcel of it. And then they run the dogs in if all else fails and they think you've got something. One of my favorite tapes [showed] the officer taking avocados out of the back of the car and shaking them! Trying to find drugs in these avocados!
"But my point was I watched hours of these tapes. I saw them arrest one man, who was an African-American from Brooklyn who refused to sign his ticket because he said: 'I'm tired of getting hassled and stopped every time I come to California. I'm not going to sign that damn traffic ticket.' They arrested him. And the one seizure I saw them make was a guy that had a roach in his pocket. The cop looked at it and said, 'You know, you shouldn't have this,' and he let him go. That was it - 33 hours. And the rest of the time they were stopping and searching people day after day, tearing their luggage apart and finding nothing."
He quoted a report of the period from April to September 1993 (just before Operation Clown Show up here). "The report said that nine Pipeline teams had been funded by the grant, and two of them had found no narcotics. The teams issued 87 citations, conducted 95 searches, arrested five people on [unspecified] drug charges. And that means that nine out of every ten searches were fruitless.
"So not only is this program kind of dangerous if you're a minority, but it's an enormous waste of police time. As we saw from looking at the records, they go for weeks between finds."
So there you have it. CLMP's educated guesses about the ineffectiveness of Pipeline operations like the ones we've been subjected to up here as a means of impacting transportation of drugs are vindicated (see for example the Winter 1996 newsletter). But we had no way of estimating just how badly the program was abusing motorists in order to accomplish so little.
As Webb said, "On occasion they do find trailer trucks full of dope, sometimes they do find seven or eight hundred thousand dollars stuck in the side of a car." These hits keep their spirits up, and so long as the Department was able to avoid keeping the statistical information that would have permitted them to judge which tactics are, and which are not, effective, they could use the occasional "big one" to mask the intrusiveness of the operation.
Normally, government agencies nearly drown their experiments in paperwork requirements, and it seems almost certain that the failure to keep useful statistics on this one was primarily motiviated by fear that a snoopy reporter (or citizen group?) would force disclosure if the records were kept at all. The predictable result is that the CHP itself now claims, with some plausibility, not to know what it's been doing. Webb said that the officials he spoke with expressed surprise that they themselves had no way of answering his questions about the effectiveness of the program.
By the time the Task Force was finished, it had made specific recommendations to the CHP concerning how to track what they're doing and minimize excesses while they're doing it. The Department has agreed to record at least some of the statistical data which would have been required by SB 78 (see "Updates" for its fate), and time will tell whether they choose to include the ones which would expose the actual performance of Operation Pipeline to public view at last.