“It’s that fear of deportation. It’s a major problem for us.”
Is that a quote from an immigrant? From a community advocate? No. It’s from the Garden City Police Chief David Lyons.
The fear of deportation and bad practices on behalf of police departments or local governments across the country have led victims and witnesses to fear police, and be unable to help in investigations. Any officer can tell you- it’s witnesses and victims themselves that can often do the most work in solving a crime…. it’s not all CSI blooey.
Our communities will become less and less safe as long as we continue to target the innocent:
Deportation fears hinder police investigations
Megan Matteucci | Monday, October 8, 2007 at 12:30 am | (see enhanced version)
Early in the morning of Sept. 29, Samuel Soto Martinez saw his younger brother lying inside their Garden City apartment.
He had been shot to death.
Moments later, Martinez and six friends were taken to the Chatham County jail on gun charges.
Now, all seven face deportation to Mexico and Garden City Police have an unsolved homicide and few witnesses willing to talk to them.
“We’re trying to get through the investigation, but it’s so time-consuming because we have to do two interviews because of the language barrier and no one is talking,” said Garden City Police Chief David Lyons. “It’s that fear of deportation. It’s a major problem for us.”
Such cases complicate local officers’ attempts to gain trust within the Hispanic community, Lyons said. Making things worse is the confusion surrounding the new Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act that took effect July 1.
Under the law, sheriff’s deputies across Georgia are required to check the citizenship status of anyone jailed for a felony or for driving under the influence. It does not require police to check the status of witnesses, crime victims or people stopped for speeding or other minor traffic violations.
Martinez, 24, and his six friends are not considered suspects in the Garden City homicide, police said. But officers arrested them after seizing two guns from the apartment.
“There were guns in the house. We want to find out what their involvement is,” Lyons said. “We think we may know who the shooter is, but we believe he may already be out of the area by now.”
Lyons said he is not pushing for deportation. That’s up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Because they are illegal aliens, they have a detainer currently placed on them by ICE,” said agency spokesman Richard Rocha. “Once Garden City decides if they are going to go forward with the charges, we will determine how to proceed. Even if Garden City is not charging them, they still face deportation.”
The men also could face federal charges for possession of a firearm by an illegal immigrant, Rocha said.
‘A sworn obligation’
Local police say they are not required to – and don’t – check the immigration status of people with whom they come in contact.
So far this year, Lyons said, Garden City has only contacted immigration officials once to ask them to deport an illegal immigrant arrested for child molestation.
“We don’t just reach out and deport someone because they are undocumented,” Lyons said. “Whether they are legal or not, we owe them the same services as everyone else. We have a sworn obligation to do as much for them as for anyone else.
“(Martinez) has a mother and a father somewhere, too. We’re trying to find out who shot him.”
Alberto Soto Martinez, 22, was found shot to death inside his Plantation Townhouses home off Augusta Avenue early Sept. 29. Police had been called to a loud party and encountered two Hispanic men who needed help. Officers followed the men and found the 22-year-old dead inside his apartment.
Initial reports indicated dozens of people were at the party, but no one seems to know what happened to the victim, Lyons said.
“Everybody involved in this is from the same little community in Mexico,” Lyons said. “They come here and band together and don’t let anyone in. They don’t trust police.”
Some are also afraid of corrupt police based on experiences in their homelands, Lyons said.
Other times, it’s rumors.
A lot of time, the fear is just hearsay, said Melody Rodriguez, director of the Hispanic Outreach and Leadership program at Armstrong Atlantic State University.
“It’s word of mouth and spreads through these communities,” Rodriguez said. “These communities literally will not leave their home, not even go to Wal-Mart or the grocery shopping to buy milk because of the fear of living undocumented. It is something that is very common.”
Criminals know about that fear, says Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Chief Michael Berkow.
In August, Savannah-Chatham officers arrested several suspected gang members who preyed on Hispanics at the Melody Acres mobile home park. One suspect, Alphonzo Hennegan, had been arrested in previous Hispanic robberies, but the victims didn’t show up to testify against him.
“He made a calculated decision to do the same thing again,” Berkow said.
This summer, Savannah-Chatham officers investigated similar incidents in Melody Acres and other predominately Hispanic neighborhoods. In these instances, however, many of the victims have come forward and arrests have been made.
Rodriguez attributes that to the work of Savannah-Chatham’s Latino Officer Outreach Program.
“I really see them moving along and really being proactive about making changes that will prevent crime in the future,” she said. “Gaining trust and having someone within the department that will be able to approach the community in a positive way is the way to go.”
The outreach program, which started in 2005, is composed of seven officers who work to bridge relations between police and the Hispanic community.
“If people in the Hispanic community see us coming to arrest and deport them, they are not going to trust us or give us the information needed to solve crimes,” Berkow said. “We can’t have a situation where the public we serve is afraid of us.”
Savannah-Chatham police have made no referrals to federal immigration officials this year.
Garden City police have had several town meetings in Hispanic neighborhoods and met with Hispanic business owners and pastors. But with an estimated 8,000 Hispanics living in Garden City and only two Spanish-speaking officers, the department struggles to make contacts, Lyons said.
Garden City, like other departments in the region, is trying to recruit more bilingual officers.
“I would hire 10 if I could find them,” Lyons said. “You can send officers to Spanish lessons, but it’s still not like hiring a Spanish officer. They never will learn the culture and nuances.”
Learning the culture is important, but learning compassion is a must, Rodriguez said.
“I feel that people need to really just put themselves in their shoes,” she said. “They are really just living in hiding. They live under fear all the time,” Rodriguez said.
Federal immigration officials say they don’t always know when an illegal immigrant is booked into the Chatham County jail, but they’re trying to change that.
Under the new Georgia law, sheriff’s deputies must check the citizenship status of people jailed for felonies and DUIs. The Chatham County Sheriff’s Department is trying to join a federal program that would allow deputies to perform immigration duties.
“We have a lot of aliens come through the jail. We’re looking at sitting down, having a meeting with ICE and seeing the benefits of the program for the community,” said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tommy Tillman.
Currently, only two law enforcement agencies in Georgia are part of the program: the Georgia Department of Public Safety and the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department.
As part of the program, ICE provides training and computer systems to deputies to assist with deportation.
“It acts as a force multiplier to identify and remove criminal illegal aliens,” Rocha said.
Rodriguez said she hopes the program is used to protect the community from criminals, not just as a way to detain innocent immigrants.
“I feel that if law enforcement in any case is willing to leave that deportation to the very end, people cooperate even more instead of frightening them even more,” she said. “I understand why these witnesses will not help. If they are going to be deported, then of course they won’t cooperate.”
Andres F. Escolar contributed to this story.