West Valley drug cases raise concerns of Latino community

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 6:20 p.m. MDT

WEST VALLEY CITY — Members of Utah's Latino community want questions answered regarding the recent dismissal of 124 state and federal drug cases.

A majority of defendants whose cases were dismissed amid an ongoing investigation of the embattled West Valley Police Department have Latino surnames, which raises “red flags,” said Tony Yapias, representing the Latino community.

“As we’ve seen 124 cases come about, a good majority of them — I’d say 75 to 80 percent — are Latino. That raised an even greater concern for us in the community. What’s going on? What was happening at the time?” Yapias said.

Next week, the Department of Justice will facilitate a closed-door meeting between West Valley police and representatives of Utah’s Latino community to help address those concerns, a DOJ spokesman confirmed.

The meeting will be conducted by the Denver office of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service. The agenda reportedly includes the topics of serving a diverse community and best practices by law enforcement. The meeting will not be open to the public or press, although participants may comment afterward.

The Community Relations Service is a “peacemaker for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color and national origin,” according to the Department of Justice website. It does not conduct any investigations, and information exchanged in meetings between parties is considered confidential.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office has said the cases were dismissed due to a lack of evidence amid allegations of police corruption and an unlikelihood of achieving convictions in court. District Attorney Sim Gill said the investigations by the county and the FBI are ongoing and he could not comment on the specific concerns raised by members of the Latino community.

Last week, the district attorney filed motions seeking the dismissal of cases against 26 defendants, the vast majority of them with Latino surnames.

Most of those cases were older and involved suspected low- to mid-level drug dealers and users who apparently fled the state after their arrests and pretrial releases.

Gill said his office has, throughout the investigation, reviewed each case for “criminal and noncriminal issues” that might hamper a successful prosecution.

Yapias said the probe and resulting legal motions have raised many concerns among Latinos.

“From how it appears right now, Latinos were an easy target based on the number of cases being dismissed. Was it racial profiling? That is one of the questions the FBI will have to answer for us,” Yapias said.

National studies have concluded that ethnic minorities are overrepresented in narcotics arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations when compared to white counterparts, although most research has been focused on African-Americans.

West Valley City is among the most diverse cities in Utah, according to the latest census. West Valley City’s population is about one-third Latino.

Yapias said he was pleased that West Valley officials had agreed to meet with Latino representatives to discuss their concerns.

“What we need to know is how they’re going to do better in the future. The fact that they’re sitting down speaks for itself. We appreciate that. We all need to reflect and see what can be done better in the future,” he said.

When asked about the meeting, West Valley City spokesman Aaron Crim referred questions to the DOJ. As of Wednesday, neither West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder nor elected officials had been invited to take part in the meeting, Winder said.

Acting West Valley Police Chief Anita Schwemmer would not comment Wednesday about next week's meeting.

Lou Riffino, spokesman for DOJ's Community Relations Service, said the office monitors news reports of conflicts in communities and acts on complaints. It offers its assistance in resolving conflicts but it does not go where it has not been invited.

In April 2011, its Denver office assisted the Canyons School District in the aftermath of allegations of racism at Alta High School. A representative advised members of the school community how to have healthy and constructive discussions about issues of racism and discrimination.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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