A new investigation reveals depth of skewed policing in Siskiyou County

A staggering percentage of stops by county deputies targeted Asian-American residents.

Two years ago, Ger Chong Ze Chang was driving to his home outside Dorris, California, near the Oregon border, when he was stopped by a Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputy. Chang recalls that the deputy walked up to his car, with his gun drawn and pointing downward, and ordered him to get out of the car. After he searched the car and confiscated a knife, he let Chang go without a ticket. But a year later, Chang said, it happened again: He was pulled over in the same place on his way home from the laundromat, searched, and ordered to dump his just-cleaned clothes out on the ground. In both cases, he says, he was never even told why he was being stopped.

According to a new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus on behalf of Chang and three other Asian American plaintiffs in Siskiyou County, the kind of intimidation and harassment Chang experienced exemplifies the Siskiyou County Sherriff’s Office’s history of racial profiling and aberrant policing.


The lawsuit draws on a yearlong investigation by the ACLU, which examined the county’s troubling policies and their impact on the Asian American community. Data collected from public records, law enforcement reports, formal complaints and incidents recounted in roughly a hundred interviews with Hmong American residents demonstrates the disproportionate impact of the county’s policing. As a result, the ACLU and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus have filed an extensive class-action lawsuit against Siskiyou County and Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue, alleging a “system of racial profiling and unlawful vehicle stops” that appears to be “designed to drive a disfavored racial minority from the County.”

Data from the ACLU’s investigation shows that the department stopped Asian American drivers at a rate 12 times greater than their proportion of the driving-age population. Asian drivers in the county were most likely to be stopped during the day, when their race was more easily identifiable, and 25 times more likely to be searched than white people. The complaint singles out two high-ranking sheriff’s office personnel, noting that more than 70% percent of their stops involved Asian American drivers.

The complaint also notes the impacts of the county’s 2021 water restrictions, which banned transportation of water on county roads and curtailed the use of primary water sources near predominantly Asian American neighborhoods. The policy — which was eventually halted in federal court — “killed off their livestock and gardens, left them unable to fend off wildfires, and resulted in many being forced to leave their homes,” the complaint says, adding that many water truck drivers had their vehicles seized and never returned. The suit also contends that the liens the county has imposed on some residents violate state law.

“There have always been, for hundreds of years in this country, efforts to paint an entire racial group as engaged in unlawful activity.”

County officials have justified the sheriff’s activities as necessary to eradicate illicit cannabis farms, many of which are concentrated in predominantly Asian American neighborhoods. But based on the department’s own data, repeatedly stopping Asian-Americans has done little to achieve its stated aims: Only 2.3% of the traffic stops conducted by the sheriff’s department in 2021 resulted in the seizure of any cannabis, for instance. The water ban, too, inflicted immense collateral damage, far beyond the stated goal of stopping cannabis cultivation, since water is equally necessary for livestock, gardens and the residents themselves.

“There have always been, for hundreds of years in this country, efforts to paint an entire racial group as engaged in unlawful activity,” said Emi Young, staff attorney for the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “Here, they have tried to take instances where they believe people of a particular racial group are violating the law, and then take enforcement against the entire group on that basis. That is not something that the law allows.”

High Country News has contacted the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office for comment on the investigation and complaint and has not yet received a response.

Two protestors face the courthouse to protest the county's water policy. One of the ordinances, targeting predominantly Asian-American neighborhoods, was halted in federal court nearly a year later.
Theo Whitcomb

Siskiyou County is one of dozens of counties in the region grappling with the growing illicit cannabis industry. While cannabis has been farmed in the county for decades, the industry became increasingly visible when many Hmong American and other Southeast Asian refugees started small outdoor grows. California had legalized cannabis around the same time, but Siskiyou County’s officials elected to recriminalize the industry in unincorporated areas of the county in 2017. As the industry expanded over the years, instead of implementing a regulatory system, the county government continued to crack down on changing land use and the growing Asian-American population. Recently, that has included sweeping ordinances concerning land and water use. Anti-cannabis activists and government officials have repeatedly denounced the Asian Americans as outsiders, with some using language like “invasion” to describe their presence and saying that the recent changes have “infected our community.”

“The wholesale characterization of Asian American residents as unsanitary, criminals, or outsiders seeking to destroy the county’s ‘way of life’ is merely another way of expressing racial animus and xenophobia,” the ACLU’s complaint states.

In a follow-up interview with High Country News, Glenn Katon, the litigation director at the Asian Law Caucus, called the county’s rhetoric about illegal cannabis a smokescreen. “They’re using language that attacks a race of people — code words referring to people as animals. These are ways the county will try and dehumanize Asian Americans to justify the persecution of them.

“You just don’t get to lower the weight of the law to terrorize the Asian American community in the name of stopping cannabis grows,” said Katon. “Investigate cannabis cultivation and cite people for whatever the law allows. You don’t get to do dragnet traffic stops. You don’t get to cut off people’s water so they can’t live, can’t bathe, and can’t feed their chickens.”

In May 2021, Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning the transportation of water on county roads surrounding predominantly Asian American neighborhoods. Hmong-American residents gathered in protest outside the Siskiyou County Courthouse.
Theo Whitcomb

After the ACLU and Asian Law Caucus contacted me about the investigation and lawsuit, I turned to some of the residents I’d gotten to know during more than two years of reporting on the cannabis industry in the conservative California county. True Lee, a community organizer and professional interpreter, told me she ultimately hopes that the county will see the Hmong community the way the community sees itself: as legitimate residents who own or rent land and property here and simply want a better life. 

“I feel like (the ACLU) is an outside source coming in to help put things into a better perspective and shine light into what's really going on here,” she said. “The white residents are stuck. They don’t know the Hmong residents, they don’t know what to do, so fear is what they fall on. That is what the sheriff is using.”


Theo Whitcomb is a writer and filmmaker living in Oregon. Formerly, he was an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @theo_whitcomb.