2006 Press Releases

7.5.2006: ACLU Issues Open Letter to Sheriff Strain for Comments Made

Sheriff Jack Strain

Via:     U.S. Mail and Facsimile

Re:      Intent to Engage in Profiling

Dear Sheriff Strain:

We write to request an immediate retraction or clarification of your statements regarding your intent to arrest persons with dreadlocks and "chee wee hairstyles" in St. Tammany Parish. Please be advised that the American Civil Liberties Union has received a complaint from persons who are Nazarene Christians, who wear dreadlocks as a religious requirement. Complainants are presently afraid to leave their home due to your public statements. We hope to bring to your attention something you should already know: that it is unlawful to arrest a person simply because of his or her hairstyle, and it is unlawful to arrest someone because of the color of his or her skin.

Your comment was "if you're going to walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy." Sheriff Strain, surely we do not have to tell you that it is lawful to walk the street, and it is further lawful to wear one's hair any way deemed appropriate. You state, "(i)t is not our intention to violate anyone's civil rights." However, an arrest based on hairstyle or skin color would violate a person's civil rights, and you have publicly stated your intent to target persons with certain hairstyles. As you are no doubt aware, the vast majority of persons wearing dreadlocks, twists or braids are African American. Your stated policy of targeting persons with these hairstyles is overtly racist and we request a retraction stating that you will comply with the requirements of the law.

Racial profiling results in bad policing. There are several important policy goals that should prevent you from encouraging your deputies to engage in racial profiling. Briefly:

We understand that you are concerned about violence and crime. We all are concerned about violence and crime. The solution, however, is for you to target people based on their behavior, not based on the style of their hair, their socio-economic background, or the color of their skin. Your comments routinely equate "trash" and "thugs" with "evacuees" and "public housing residents." It is neither fair nor accurate to intimate that all New Orleans evacuees are thugs and criminals. Neither is it accurate to intimate that all public housing residents are criminals. If you have a crime problem in St. Tammany then target the criminals, but lashing out against people of color and poor people is not the solution. Targeting criminal behavior is the solution.

You state further that "the first people we should put on the rail and get out of here" are criminal defense attorneys. As you are aware, we just celebrated the birth of this great country yesterday. One of the bedrock principles of this nation is that every person is entitled to a defense, and is innocent until proven guilty. Your comments indicate that you would have persons locked up without access to counsel for the offense of wearing dreadlocks.

We hope that you will immediately retract your statements and clarify the intent of your comments. Being treated like a criminal because of one's race is humiliating and scary. It also violates the law. You are on notice that it violates the Constitution to arrest someone for the color of his or her skin, or for his or her hairstyle. An arrest or stop on either basis would violate the Fourth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, certain persons wear dreadlocks as a religious requirement; arrests on this basis will impinge upon a person's right to exercise his or her religion, which is protected by the First Amendment. As stated above, we have a complaint from such persons, who are presently afraid to leave their home due to your stated policy.

It seems that you have had a lapse in judgment regarding the appropriate way to carry out your oath of office. As Sheriff you are sworn to uphold the Constitution, yet you have publicly stated that you intend to violate its protections. Please reaffirm your obligations of office and retract or clarify your recent statements.

Sincerely,

Katie Schwartzmann
Staff Attorney