Police claimed the tattoo on his forearm was a gang symbol.
The advocates and the teens say the incident, which happened at the 2010 Montgomery County Fair, underscores the profiling and mistreatment some innocent Latino teens face at the hands of police officers eager to bust gang members.
Last year nearly 200,000 people attended the Montgomery County Fair. Controlling that type of crowd was a daunting public security task for police officers trying to keep patrons safe.
José, 19, was one of the teens that attended the fair. "I just wanted to go and just have fun," says José, who asked that his last name not be used.
But that fun was short-lived for Jose and his friends. They were surrounded and detained by Montgomery County Police as suspected gang members.
"They took us in a tent and then they took our picture and everything," says Jose. "They didn't ask permission to do anything. They were like, lift up your shirt I'm gonna take a picture of your tattoo."
Jose says police claimed a red bracelet from Argentina was gang paraphernalia, and the initials of his name tattooed on his forearm were a gang symbol. In a subsequent affidavit, Jose says he is not, nor ever has been a gang member, so he denied the police officers' accusations.
A training document from the Montgomery County Police Gang Unit advises officers to "use your imagination" when trying to identify gang symbols.
"They told us to get in a group so we can take a picture, and one officer said throw up gang signs," says José, continuing to recount his ordeal. "I said no. Why should I throw gang signs when I'm not in a gang?"
The document also urges officers to take group pictures to establish gang membership for future investigations. José and his friends were banned from the fair, and they subsequently filed a complaint with the county's office of human rights.
An organization called Identity, which helps at-risk kids, approached County Police Chief Tom Manger. Manger allegedly found enough grounds to proceed with an internal affairs investigation of the incident. A police internal affairs letter dated March 8, 2011, obtained by WAMU, says one of the officers received "appropriate personnel action."
"We have not received any other information about whether anything was done to any other officers," says Candace Kattar, executive director of Identity. "The police department will not tell us."
The department did not address this specific case with WAMU either.
Kattar says from a broader perspective, information needs to be provided about how many kids are stopped each year by police, why they are stopped and what happens during those stops, including where photos are archived and how they are used.
She says this data can help the community determine if this incident reflects a broader pattern of profiling, harassment and entrapment, as many teens and their parents claim.
Lt. Dinesh Patil, head of the department's gang unit, says he has begun to review with his officers what the correct procedure should be when they pull people in for gang-related questioning.
Last month, a Montgomery County task force endorsed by Executive Isiah Leggett made a series of recommendations about how to improve the lives of Latino youth in the county. One of those recommendations was a review of the policy and procedures that officers follow when they interview and photograph young Latinos.
Video: Latino teens suspected of gang association because of hand gestures.
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