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Police, ACLU settle lawsuit over West High 'gang operation'

The Salt Lake City Police Department has agreed to stop conducting gang enforcement operations at local schools like it did in 2010 that, according to some, equated to racial profiling.
The Salt Lake City Police Department has agreed to stop conducting gang enforcement operations at local schools like it did in 2010 that, according to some, equated to racial profiling.
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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department has agreed to stop conducting gang enforcement operations at local schools like it did in 2010 that, according to some, equated to racial profiling.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the police department announced that a settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several West High School students who were falsely profiled as gang members.

In 2010, between 14 to 40 students of Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander descent were searched, questioned and forced to be photographed holding signs identifying themselves as gang members as part of a sweep by law enforcement at various school properties during school hours, according to the ACLU's lawsuit.

"Their information was then documented and entered into a police database, potentially subjecting them to future unwarranted police scrutiny," according to the ACLU.

The Salt Lake, West Valley and West Jordan police departments were all named in the lawsuit, in addition to the Unified Police Department's Metro Gang Unit and Salt Lake City School District officials.

When the lawsuit was filed, the ACLU said the raid essentially equated to racial profiling. They claimed the students' 4th Amendment rights to protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and their 14th Amendment rights to equal protection were violated.

The suit was filed on behalf of three students including Kaleb Winston, a 14-year-old freshman at the time. He said he was photographed while being forced to hold a sign that stated "gang tagger." He said he suffered stress and humiliation and temporarily left school as a result of the incident.

“What the school and police did to me that day was wrong,” he said in a prepared statement Thursday. “I am really glad there are now policies in place to make sure that no kid at school in Salt Lake will ever have to go through what I did.”

"We’re pleased that the police and school district came to the table willing to make significant changes in the way they treat Salt Lake City school students, especially kids of color,” said Kevin Winston, Kaleb Winston’s father. “These agreements can’t change what happened to Kaleb and the other students, but one of our main goals in this case has always been to help make things right for students in the future.”

Among the agreements made as part of the settlement:

• Salt Lake police will not conduct gang operations similar to the 2010 roundup.

• Students will no longer be photographed holding white board signs alleging gang affiliation.

• Police will not use race, color, ethnicity or national origin in exercising discretion to conduct a stop or search of a student.

• All records put into the database during the 2010 operation will be expunged.

• The school district will amend its policies regarding prohibited gang-related activity to provide clear notice to students and parents, and it will publicly post data on police arrests in school twice a year on its website.

The school district and the Salt Lake and West Valley police departments agreed to pay more than $100,000 in damages to the plaintiffs, according to the ACLU.

The Salt Lake Police Department issued a statement Thursday saying the students who acknowledged gang affiliation were entered into a database identifying them as gang members. The settlement was reached after the city "defeated the plaintiff's attempts to certify this case as a class action."

It said many of the policy changes called for in the settlement have already been implemented and officers are "intent on reducing disproportionate minority contact, where minority students in schools have contact with law enforcement at a greater frequency than white students do."

“Our officers are mentoring and building face-to-face relationships with the youth, in an effort to break down barriers that have been built up in the past," Salt Lake interim Police Chief Mike Brown said in a prepared statement. "We see this settlement as a win-win for us and the community and it represents a path for moving forward.”

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam