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Shopping While Brown

Springs man alleges racial profiling in "dumb-ass" incident



A Colorado Springs man who claims he was falsely targeted as a shoplifter because he is Hispanic suffered a double indignity when he was ticketed by police for verbally harassing the undercover security guard who wrongly fingered him.

Norberto Villanueva, 37, said he briefly visited the Longs Drugs at 3960 Palmer Park Boulevard to buy cigars on the evening of October 19. A private undercover security guard -- later identified as controversial anti-gay, minority-bashing former radio talk-show host Mike McKee -- fingered Villanueva as a shoplifting suspect to an off-duty police officer working security.

"I feel I was harassed because of the color of my skin," said Villanueva, a Puerto Rican whose family moved to New York City when he was 2. "To me, it was a racial profiling thing from the start."

After he left the store, off-duty Colorado Springs police officer Jason Ragland asked if he could search Villanueva, who consented, and Ragland found nothing. Villanueva said after he was searched, he turned to McKee and asked him if he felt like a "dumb-ass" -- and the wrongly accused man was eventually cited for verbally harassing McKee.

"I think he fingered me because I was Hispanic," Villanueva said. "My contention is I was racially profiled and harassed."

Running errands

That night, Villanueva, his wife, Lisa, and their three boys, aged 11, 7 and 6, were out running errands, having had just returned to Colorado Springs the day before after a long road trip to Michigan for the funeral of Lisa's father, a longtime police officer.

Off-duty CSPD officer Ragland was moonlighting on security detail that busy Friday night at Longs, the only Longs store in Colorado that sells wine and hard alcohol. Ragland, 30, fully armed and dressed in his Colorado Springs police department uniform, stood near the store entrance.

As do many other chains and department stores, Longs regularly employs off-duty Colorado Springs police officers and El Paso County sheriff's deputies to patrol the store during busy times to cut down on five-finger discounts. The officers, who patrol in full uniform, earn on average about $20 an hour for the extra duty.

Villanueva, the owner of a local financial services company, said he was wearing sweat pants and a loose shirt when he entered the store and went to the cigar section, just left of the main entrance along the front wall. His wife and children were waiting in the car.

"I was looking at the cigar rack, thinking about buying some cigars but decided against it and walked right back out," he said. "I was in there two or three minutes. I never put my hand in my pocket. I picked up a few boxes to look at the prices."

McKee -- who is actually employed as an undercover security guard by the Albertson's grocery store next door -- was apparently in Longs and reported to Ragland that he had seen Villanueva shoplifting. It is unclear what exactly McKee was doing in the Longs store at the time.

This week, Villanueva and his wife identified McKee -- who is also identified in police reports of the incident -- from a photograph; however McKee was uncooperative when approached at Albertson's by the Independent for comment on this story.

'I'm sure I saw him do it'

During the incident, Villanueva said Officer Ragland held his hands behind his back, but did not handcuff him and he searched and found nothing. McKee, he said, was hanging around nearby during the entire incident, along with numerous curious onlookers.

Villlanueva said the officer was "cordial," but still, he was upset and "felt violated" by the search. However, he insisted he never acted disrespectfully to the officer.

"[Ragland] asked me, 'So you didn't shoplift anything?' I said, 'You didn't find anything, did you?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Well, there's your answer.'"

It might have ended there, but things quickly turned sour."[McKee] was talking to Ragland the whole time, telling him, 'I'm sure I saw him do it. I know he has something,'" Villanueva said.

Eventually, Villanueva turned to McKee -- who Villanueva described as poorly dressed and unclean -- and asked him, "Don't you feel like a dumb-ass?"

Villanueva, who grew up in the South Bronx and spent six years in the Navy, said McKee wouldn't look him in the eye. There was an awkward silence and eventually, Villanueva said, Ragland asked McKee if he wanted to pursue charges of harassment for the "dumb-ass" comment.

According to Villanueva, McKee stammered and seemed "like he really didn't want to do it" until Ragland repeated the question "several times and coaxed him into filing the charges."

Ragland then summoned an on-duty police officer, who arrived by patrol car and performed a background check on Villanueva, who says he has no criminal record. Villanueva was eventually issued a summons, and ordered to appear in Colorado Springs Municipal Court on November 13 to answer charges of criminal harassment.

"I didn't do anything and now the officer is giving me a ticket," Villanueva said. "I was blown away. I couldn't believe it had turned out like that.

"I feel indignant. I'm a law-abiding citizen, wrongly accused, degraded in public that traumatized my kids," Villanueva said. "I'm having a hard time trying to figure out who the victim is here."

Investigating their own

The Colorado Springs Police Department bristles at Villanueva's allegations of being racially profiled.

"The reality is that the police department is very sensitive to that issue," said police spokesman Lt. Skip Arms. "Racial profiling is not acceptable here."

In recent years, the issue of cops unfairly targeting and harassing people of color as potential criminals -- particularly while driving -- has become a heated issue around the country. However, law enforcement officials in Colorado Springs have consistently denied the problem exists here.

"It's not something prevalent in this community or you would hear a lot more about it," Arms said.

Earlier this year, the CSPD adopted a program requiring officers to hand out business cards during traffic stops, giving people the opportunity to call in and complain if they feel they are the victims of racial profiling. However, this week, Arms said the department does not keep a database of racial profiling complaints since the program launched.

Since the Oct. 19 incident, the Villanuevas have been frustrated in their efforts to have their concerns taken seriously by the CSPD. The couple filed a formal complaint of the treatment with both the police department and City Hall. When he filed the complaint on October 22, Villanueva asked the police to note that he believes he was the victim of racial profiling as part of the official complaint, but that wasn't done.

Unlike many other cities, which have external citizens' oversight committees that monitor alleged police abuses, the CSPD conducts investigations into citizen complaints and allegations against police officers by its own internal affairs division.

"That's very frustrating and surprising," Villanueva said. "What are the chances of them doing anything if they're investigating themselves?"

According to Arms, the complaint is being investigated by Ragland's "chain of command," which includes his superiors at the Gold Hill division. Ragland, a two-year veteran, could face disciplinary action if police investigators determine wrong-doing.

Ragland, he said, was not available for an interview for this story because the case is currently under investigation. However, Arms -- after being briefed by The Colorado Springs Independent of the incident -- defended the officer.

"If [Villanueva] made statements of a threatening nature, especially in the officer's presence, it's the officer's duty to inform the victim of that crime what his options are," Arms said.

Arms doubted the incident involving Villanueva was racially motivated.

"If the officer detained him because of his race, without reasonable cause, that's racial profiling," he said. "If an independent person points out a crime, that's reasonable ground and that hardly constitutes racially profiling in that context."

For Villanueva, the whole process is becoming increasingly frustrating.

"Just because you sweep it under the carpet doesn't mean it doesn't exist," he said. "At least I have enough money to get a lawyer and stand up for my rights. What about the people who have no money? What happens to them?"

He's baaack

At the center of this conflict is the shadowy figure of McKee -- the undercover security guard and a controversial figure to say the least.

For six months in 1999, McKee hosted a self-funded daily radio talk-show broadcast on KWYD 1580 AM, a Christian station, until it was cancelled in part because he was behind in his bills. On the air, McKee would routinely attack minority groups, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region.

He also berated gay and lesbian groups and urged a boycott of The Colorado Springs Independent, which he alleged is a newspaper that's pornographic and accepts "gay money."

He is particularly offended by homosexuals, and appears annually, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, to protest the Gay and Lesbian PrideFest downtown. He has also staged boycotts at Barnes & Noble bookstores in Colorado Springs to protest their inclusion of gay and lesbian sections.

McKee is a former employee of Bircham's Office Products, and is closely aligned with its owner, the outspoken ultraconservative Ed Bircham. It is unclear when McKee began working for Albertson's as an undercover security officer.

This week, the manager of Albertson's directed all inquiries about the hiring and training of undercover security officers to its Boise, Idaho headquarters. Media relations representatives there were unable to provide specific information about McKee's employment, but added the company takes the issue of racial profiling very seriously.

An uneasy feeling

Villanueva, however, said he finds it unsettling that someone with such a publicly checkered past in minority relations could be in a position of authority to accuse people of shoplifting and other crimes.

He and his wife, Lisa, an African-American, say they are still unsettled by the incident -- and by their perceived slow response by the CSPD. Though they moved to Colorado Springs three years ago so two of their asthmatic sons could breath easier, lately the couple is ready to pack their family's bags.

"I'm feeling really insecure here. We purchased a home here and I wanted to put it up for sale and leave because I don't want my kids raised like this," said Lisa, a local school teacher. "We know there's a risk factor to confront the police, but you can't teach your children to be leaders if they bow down."

Lisa Villanueva says the incident upset her three young sons, who were watching their father being frisked and questioned from the family van.

"My littlest one is having nightmares. They were all crying when they saw what was happening," she said. "It makes me feel real uncomfortable being brown here in Colorado Springs. It makes me hesitant to continue raising my kids here. It's hard to reinforce to them that the law is here to protect them when (the police) go after you because you're brown."

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