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Hispanic group seeks federal investigation

A Hispanic organization on Tuesday asked U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate allegations that law enforcement officials in Pinellas County are harassing Hispanic teenagers.

Members of the organization say deputies and police officers have used excessive force in dealing with the youths, shined lights into their homes and even intimidated their parents. They said they want Reno to investigate possible civil rights violations.

The letter from the Suncoast Hispanic Association to Reno came hours after about five parents and 15 teenagers met with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Internal Affairs Unit to discuss the allegations. After the six-hour meeting, Hispanic Association president Louis Rodriguez said the department is unlikely to conduct an objective investigation.

"If even before their investigation had begun the department is denying wrongdoing, how can we expect that a serious, fair and impartial investigation will be conducted?" he said in the letter. "We believe that these issues cannot be resolved fairly at the local level."

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., said departmental policy prevents officials from disclosing whether they plan to investigate particular cases.

Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita strongly denied the allegations, insisting that deputies do not harass people because of their ethnic origin. He said he could not comment on specific allegations because they are under investigation by his department.

"I do know on specific instances _ at several locations we had complaints We were asked to send a deputy to have these rowdy kids removed. Now whether or not it's the same Hispanic group What we've had are problems with juveniles period _ regardless of their ethnic background or heritage."

The Hispanic group criticized officers with Largo and Pinellas Park, saying teenagers have been detained unfairly, falsely arrested and employers have been coerced into issuing trespassing notices.

Rodriguez conceded that one or two of the teenagers have criminal records, but said most who have been arrested have been charged with petty infractions, such as trespassing.