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ACLU settles with West Valley City for $50K in controversial 'gang sweep'

ACLU settles with West Valley City for $50K in controversial 'gang sweep'


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SALT LAKE CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said Monday it received a $50,000 offer from the West Valley City Police Department in a class action lawsuit for an alleged inappropriate "gang sweep" of students in 2010.

The police department, however, disavowed any liability as part of the settlement, according to the ACLU.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in December 2012, the ACLU of Utah claims as many as 40 Latino, Pacific Islander and African-American students at West High School in Salt Lake City were detained, interrogated and then photographed holding signs describing their alleged gang involvement.

"The students' personal information was entered into a police database without any evidence of actual criminal activity," the ACLU said in a statement Monday. "All students detained, interrogated and documented that day were racial minorities."

The ACLU contends more than a dozen officers from multiple agencies entered the school for the so-called gang sweep. Three students were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit identified as defendants the Salt Lake City School District, its superintendent, McKell Withers, and the district's school board; the Salt Lake City Police Department; the West Jordan Police Department; and the Unified Police Department's Metro Gang Unit.

Former West Valley Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen and interim Chief Anita Schwemmer also are named as defendants in the lawsuit. The alleged incident occurred before West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo was hired in August 2013.

"Though we will continue to vigorously pursue this case against the remaining defendants, the case against West Valley and its (former) police chief ends today," John Mejia, legal director of ACLU of Utah, said in a statement. "Now the question becomes: How can West Valley ensure that an incident like this never happens again?"

Kaleb Winston, one of the plaintiffs and a freshman at the time of the alleged raid, said after the lawsuit was filed that he was required to be photographed holding a sign reading "gang tagger."

"I am bringing this case because I want to help make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to any other student," Winston said at the time.

Winton's father, Kevin Winston, said in a statement released by the ACLU on Monday that he is pleased by the settlement with West Valley City.

"While the monetary part of this judgment is gratifying, we brought this case to change the way police do business, especially the way they treat kids of color," Kevin Winston said. "We hope the West Valley City Police Department will make real changes to make sure that their officers treat all kids fairly and respectfully, especially in school."

The ACLU of Utah said it wants future policy changes from the West Valley City Police Department, including a "written prohibition on allowing gang unit officers to visit … schools during school hours for the purpose of detaining and interrogating students about alleged gang affiliation."

The organization also wants a total ban on any mug shot-syle photos of juveniles with information about their alleged gang affiliation and says students shouldn't be questioned or searched unless they are believed to have committed a crime.

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Ben Lockhart


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