Margarito Blanco trains his camcorder on the officer approaching a Chevy pickup, while his friend Andrew Sanchez furiously scribbles notes on a pad.
They are not working for the police. They’re watching them.
It’s about 8:10 p.m. on a recent Thursday and the turquoise S-10 is pulled over at a Circle K gas station in Phoenix.
Anywhere else in the United States, this might appear to be nothing more than a routine traffic stop. But Phoenix is ground zero in the battle over illegal immigration, and to Blanco and Sanchez the stop represents a potential opportunity to catch a member of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in the act of racial profiling.
CNN accompanied the pair as they cruised around Phoenix looking for traffic stops to document on the Thursday after Gov. Jan Brewer signed what’s being called the nation’s toughest anti-immigration enforcement law, SB 1070.
In response to concerns that the law encourages police to racially profile, Brewer and the legislature amended it to specify that police can stop suspected illegal immigrants only while enforcing another law or ordinance.
Sanchez, an American-born community activist from the Arizona town of Guadalupe, began engaging in reverse police surveillance a year ago.
Since 2008, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has staged 15 street patrol operations targeting areas suspected to have high concentrations of crime related to illegal immigration. Arpaio himself announces each operation with a press release and news conference a few hours before deputies and so-called “posse volunteers” take to the streets.
The traffic stop CNN witnessed with Sanchez was part of an operation focusing on the west Phoenix community of Maryvale. Arpaio describes the area as a hub for drop houses used by human traffickers that’s also a crossroads of transportation routes to move illegal immigrants throughout Arizona and beyond its borders.
Sanchez, who has himself been arrested in what he says was a case of racial profiling, has garnered his fair share of publicity in Arizona as a community activist and cop-watcher. His family’s claim that the sheriff’s department has retaliated against them for their activism was the subject of a 2009 cover story in the alternative newspaper Phoenix New Times.
As soon as an operation is announced, the cop-watchers head somewhere with a Wifi connection–a home or Starbucks–to monitor police scanners. They send text messages of the locations of stops to others who, like Sanchez, cruise the area. They usually travel in pairs and try to reach the stop while it is in progress so they can record it and document it.
On the night CNN accompanied them, Sanchez and his partner pulled into the Circle K just as the deputy, sporting a crew cut and bulletproof vest, took the man’s license to his partner inside the vehicle and conferred with him. A few moments later, he brought the license back to the driver, returned to his patrol SUV and drove away.
As the driver pulled the pickup to a gas pump, Sanchez and Blanco walked over and peppered him with questions: Why did they stop you? What did they say? Did they give you a ticket?
The driver said the officer initially spoke to him in Spanish, telling him he was pulled over because the temporary tag affixed to the truck’s cab window was not properly illuminated.
As the man rattled off details, Sanchez nodded, interpreting the incident as an example of racial profiling.
“Just the fact that he started speaking to him in Spanish shows that he approached him with a certain idea in mind of who he was,” he said. “Also, there are hundreds of people driving around with temporary license plates. If this guy were in another part of town, he wouldn’t be pulled over.”
But the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office sees it another way. The temporary tag was not visible in the back of the cab, so the deputy felt obligated to pull the driver over to verify it, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
The deputy did not even notice what the driver looked like until he pulled him over, Lee said, noting that the officer had a hard time remembering the incident from the many other car stops he made that night.
The deputy did recall, however, that the driver had an outstanding felony warrant from another state, Lee said. The details of the warrant were not available to the deputy because it was not an extraditable offense, and so the officer decided to let the man go.
“The guy seemed a little bit nervous and he thought it was because he had a felony warrant but it was not an extraditable offense,” Lee said. “Obviously if the deputy gets information that a guy has a warrant then his level of awareness goes up a bit.”