DUI Checkpoint Shutdown Irks Rank-And-File Officers

Steve Penna, San Mateo Daily Journal, Sept. 7, 2009

What started as a routine DUI checkpoint by the Redwood City Police Department July 2 ended with a small crowd in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood yelling, “Gringo, go home,” and “We won, you lost,” according to police on scene after a series of communication between a nonprofit director, a councilwoman and the chief of police.

The checkpoint was shut down early after Redwood City Councilwoman Barbara Pierce called the Police Chief Louis Cobarruviaz and expressed concern about the checkpoint’s proximity to the Fair Oaks Community Center, popular with Latino residents. Some, including rank-and-file officers, are now questioning whether the order to shut down the checkpoint should have been made and wondering whether Pierce went too far in bringing her concerns to the chief. It also underscores a divide on the part of the Fair Oaks Community Center between providing services to their clients and letting law enforcement officials do their jobs.

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According to veteran Redwood City police officers who wished to remain anonymous, officers working near the Fair Oaks Community Center July 2 were told by Capt. Chris Cesena the checkpoint was being shut down after a call to him from the police chief.

E-mail correspondence suggests concerns about the checkpoint were initiated by Sheryl Muñoz-Bergman, director of San Mateo County programs for the International Institute of the Bay Area. Muñoz-Bergman has an office at the community center and has been an outspoken voice for the immigrant community.

Muñoz-Bergman tried to contact Foust (who was out of town) and Cobarruviaz at 6:08 p.m. July 2, writing, “The Redwood City police are outside the Fair Oaks Community Center right now, using the parking lot to impound cars and arrest individuals.”

She continued to write she was, “VERY CONCERNED about the location the police have chosen” and “would respectfully request that today if possible, and certainly in the future, that police checkpoints be located elsewhere.” She included in the subject line of the e-mail that “police were arresting clients at Fair Oaks Community Center.”

She also called Pierce who . . . then e-mailed Foust, Cobarruviaz and City Manager Peter Ingram (who was also out of town) and wrote that after hearing from a “community member,” she was concerned that “local folks view the center as a safe place and so having the checkpoint and tow trucks there is raising concerns.”

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In an e-mail to Foust and Ingram, [Police Chief] Cobarruviaz said the use of Fair Oaks was “unfortunate” and that “as soon as I was notified by . . . Pierce of the concerns expressed by community center representatives, I notified . . . Cesena and asked him to move the checkpoint to a different location on Middlefield Road, [or] suspend it.” He also wrote he supported the decision and takes full responsibility.

During the approximately one hour and a half before the checkpoint was shut down, police issued 21 citations (19 for unlicensed drivers and two for driving with a suspended license). Nineteen cars were towed. DUI checkpoints allow police officers to demand driver’s licenses and proof of insurance, and city leaders agree the roadblocks are an effective way to get drunken drivers off the streets.

After the checkpoint was shut down, police started to break down the operation, and a small crowd of about 18 people started cheering and yelling at the officers, according to officers at the scene.

“You are bums, get out of our neighborhood,” and “We won, you lost,” were just a few of the catcalls, according to officers.

“It is irresponsible of the crowd. They did not show good judgment,” said Pierce. But “they [the police] could have avoided that by having [checkpoints] somewhere else.”

“If police officers are unhappy, then maybe they need to speak with their boss,” she added.

Police, who said they were just doing their job, see it differently.

“I was ashamed and humiliated because I am a part of this community and do not need to be told to go home,” said one officer. “It is the saddest day I have ever had in my law enforcement career.”

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