By Ben Poston , Joel Rubin and Maya Lau Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County inspector general has launched an investigation into whether a Sheriff’s Department highway enforcement team engaged in racial profiling when it stopped thousands of innocent Latino drivers in search of drugs on the 5 Freeway.

The move comes after The Times reported that nearly 70% of drivers stopped from 2012 through last year were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their vehicles searched — a rate far higher than motorists of other racial and ethnic groups.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis asked the inspector general and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to conduct the review of the department’s Domestic Highway Enforcement Team.

“It’s deeply concerning that racial profiling could have been used on Latino drivers,” Solis said in a statement, adding that The Times’ report “warrants a deeper investigation.”

In a statement, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he was proud of the team’s work, which includes confiscating 3,500 pounds of drugs and rescuing six victims of human trafficking. He said he looks “forward to working closely with the inspector general to examine any issues of concern.”

“As someone who has dedicated my career to protecting the civil rights of all people, I am personally concerned about any allegation of racial and ethnic profiling and take very seriously questions about race and police procedures,” McDonnell said.

Inspector General Max Huntsman declined to comment on the scope of the review or how long it would take.

Sheriff’s Department officials and deputies on the team have denied racial profiling and insisted that they base their stops only on a person’s driving and other impartial factors.

The team was launched as a response to a spate of drug overdoses in the Santa Clarita area, department officials said. Similar units operate around the country as part of a federal program designed to use local and federal law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking.

The team’s four deputies — all white men — typically work alone in marked SUVs. Their terrain spans the roughly 40 miles of freeway from the border with Kern County to just south of Santa Clarita.

Though the deputies are looking for any criminal, nearly all of the arrests are for drug-related crimes. The 5 Freeway, they say, is a pipeline for cartels to move drugs up the West Coast and return to Mexico with cash from drug sales as well as weapons purchased in the U.S.

The Times analyzed data from every traffic stop recorded by the team from 2012 through the end of last year — more than 9,000 stops in all — and found that Latino drivers accounted for 69% of the deputies’ stops. Though two-thirds of Latino drivers who were pulled over had their vehicles searched, cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time. Deputies found drugs or other illegal items in the vehicles of Latino motorists at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers, The Times’ analysis found.

On the same section of freeway, officers from the California Highway Patrol, who patrol traffic violations, pulled over nearly 378,000 motorists during the same period; 40% of those drivers were Latino.

Allegations of racial profiling by police are common, but researchers using data on traffic stops said it is difficult to show definitively that officers selectively target one race or ethnicity. In the case of the Sheriff’s Department’s highway team, experts said using the population of L.A. County, which is 48% Latino, as a benchmark would be misleading. Ideally, they said, they would want to know the racial breakdown of all drivers on the particular section of the 5 Freeway.

The fact that Latinos made up such a smaller percentage of stops by CHP officers along the same stretch strongly indicates that the Sheriff’s Department team was targeting the group, according to several racial profiling experts who reviewed The Times’ findings.

Lael Rubin, a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and former supervisor in the district attorney’s office, said she was “horrified” after reading The Times’ report and expected the commission to discuss the issue when it meets next month.

Another commissioner, Sean Kennedy, said the newspaper’s findings are particularly concerning given that nearly half of the highway team’s federal drug cases have been dismissed due to the “deputies’ questionable tactics and credibility problems.”

“At the very least, the statistics raise an inference of racial profiling that ought to be investigated,” said Kennedy, the executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy. “Racial profiling and false testimony in court go hand in hand.”

Deputies are taught at the training academy that racial profiling is illegal, said retired Sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva, who is running against McDonnell in the November election for sheriff. He said he would have to see the raw data to know whether the highway team is violating the rights of Latino drivers.

“Each deputy in their own right may be doing what they believe they should be doing,” he said. “However when you look at the totality of what’s going on, you have to look at the statistics and ask: Is this a cost that the society is willing to bear? Is it justifiable?”

In a statement, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the stretch of the 5 Freeway patrolled by the highway team, praised the unit’s efforts to remove drugs and help victims of human trafficking.

“However, no innocent individuals should be subjected to unreasonable targeting or unconstitutional search and seizure,” she said.

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