By DANZA JOHNSON / NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – While walking back to his apartment last year, Juan was robbed and beaten, his life threatened by two men he knew.
Even though he knew the men’s names, addresses and where they worked, Juan never reported the incident to police. And it wasn’t because he was afraid of his attackers; he was afraid of what reporting a crime to police could mean for him.
Juan, who didn’t want his last name used, is one of hundreds of undocumented Hispanic immigrants in Lee County who would rather not report any crimes for fear of being arrested – or worse – deported for their lack of citizenship.
Juan is in the country illegally, he said.
Although he has no police record, works a full-time job and supports a family here in Tupelo and in Mexico, Juan believed he didn’t have the right or privilege to call on police when he was robbed.
He said he feels like he is just as much a criminal in the eyes of the law as the men who attacked him.
“I don’t have the proper paperwork to be here,” Juan said through a translator. “I don’t speak the language very well either. So If I had gone to police, I probably would have been sent back, so why take the chance? My wounds healed, I made more money and I’m still here in Tupelo. So to me it all worked out in my favor.”
Over the past 10 years, the Hispanic population in Lee County and Tupelo has increased substantially. According to the U.S. Census data, nearly 2 percent of Lee County’s population was made up of Hispanics in 2009.
The Hispanic population is broken down into two groups – those who are documented and living in the U.S. legally and undocumented, illegal aliens. Depending on which group a person is in often dictates how they interact with law enforcement.
Stories like Juan’s are normal within Hispanic communities across the country. Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton recently held a forum in Tupelo for Hispanic residents so they could voice their concerns to local police.
At the forum, many were concerned about how police handle Hispanics.
“It’s our job to enforce the law and not to deport people,” said Carleton. “We are hearing about things that go on in the Hispanic community but they aren’t getting reported. We have to find a way to gain their trust so they will call us when they need help, because whether you are here legally or not, it’s our jobs to make sure you are safe.”
Dr. David McElreath, chair of the University of Mississippi Legal Studies Department, said that because many Hispanics aren’t sure of their citizenship status, they can be targets for crimes of opportunity.
As in Juan’s case, McElreath said citizenship status plays a role when Hispanics do not want to deal with police. However, the inability to communicate on both ends possibly plays an even bigger role in underreporting crime throughout the Hispanic community.
“A large number of people moving here can only speak Spanish,” said McElreath. “And if the police can’t speak Spanish, then there is going to be an even bigger barrier between them and the Hispanic community. So because of these factors we don’t know how much crime is actually going on in the Hispanic community. But we don’t think it’s that disproportionate in our area.”
A Hispanic man, who asked to be called Sam, said that although it’s not a daily occurrence, serious crimes occur in the Hispanic community that police don’t know about.
In 2009, authorities found the body of Genero Gonzalez under a bridge near Plantersville. According to authorities, Gonzalez was last seen walking home from a party. He was found under the bridge the next morning and his death was ruled an accident. Sam said that wasn’t the case.
“It was not an accident. He was robbed and thrown over the bridge by some men who were at the party with him,” Sam said. “People know what happened but are too afraid to tell police. They don’t want to bring that attention to themselves. There are always fights among Hispanics where someone gets beat up or stabbed that people outside the community never hear about because it’s never reported.”
Elquin Gonzalez serves as Hispanic minister at St. James Catholic Church and is owner of Speedy Gonzalez, a Mexican restaurant and convenience store used by many Hispanics to send money home.
Elquin Gonzalez was Genero Gonzalez’
“The people who were living with Genero at the time that he died moved out of state because they didn’t want to be questioned by police,” said Gonzalez. “They just fear dealing with police for a lot of different reasons.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said the evidence gathered from the investigation of Gonzalez’ death did not prove that foul play was a factor.
McElreath said the violence Hispanics see in their own country also makes it hard for them to trust police.
According to McElreath, police corruption and law enforcement’s inability to protect the public in Mexico is an understood part of Mexican society. It’s not uncommon to see a police officer in Mexico take money from a person they pull over during a traffic stop, he said.
Former Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Shane Minich, 35, was sentenced to a year in jail in July after pleading guilty to pulling over Hispanic drivers and taking money from them. Gonzalez said he doesn’t believe incidents like that are common in Lee County.
“I think here Hispanics are a little more reluctant to offer money to police on traffic stops like they would if they were in Mexico, but if asked for it by the police they will have no problem giving it to them because that’s what happens where they are from,” said Gonzalez.
Johnson led the investigation that led to Minich’s arrest and conviction. Thanks to that incident, he said a new level of trust has been gained for law enforcement throughout the Hispanic community.
“It took a lot for the victims to report this crime on an authority figure, so it was my duty to make sure this person was prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Johnson. “We want people to know we stand up for what’s right no matter who is doing the reporting. That arrest and conviction was a major step forward in building a stronger relationship between us and the Hispanic community.”
Gonzalez and Carleton agree that a problem exists and that the forum was a first step in fixing it. The next step is under way – providing Spanish classes for officers who want to learn the language. Gonzalez said he has felt more welcomed by the police department in Tupelo since Carleton took over as police chief than he has during the whole 10 years he’s lived here.
“I can honestly say that when (Harold) Chaffin was the chief I as a Hispanic citizen didn’t feel welcomed or like my concerns were important,” said Gonzalez. “It’s hard to talk to someone when you feel like you aren’t wanted or welcomed. But Tony has really made me feel like he values what I have to say and what I need as a citizen. That alone will help to bring the communities closer together.”
Carleton also said he would like to hire more Hispanic police officers. Chamila Brown is the department’s only Spanish-speaking out of 110 certified officers. Brown, who is often called in to translate for officers when they stop Hispanics, said more Hispanic officers would be a positive step in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the Hispanic community.
“I think hiring more Hispanic officers is a great start in building a relationship between Hispanics and the community,” said Brown, who has been with the department for more than 10 years. “It is definitely a plus when people can have someone there that they can relate to. I think it’s going to start with the younger generation.”
Brown said she talks to Hispanic children often about becoming police officers. Because her father came to the United States illegally from Puerto Rico with hopes of providing a better life for his family, Brown said she understands why people would want to come here.
“This is the land of pride,” said Brown. “Everyone wants to come here for the chance for a better life. And I say as long as those people aren’t committing crimes and are being hard-working productive citizens then we should let them come.”
Relations between Hispanics and police in border states like Texas and Arizona have always been a concern for authorities. But after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed what many are calling the toughest immigration bill to date in April, the Hispanic population’s trust of law enforcement has deteriorated even more.
Steve Martos, a police officer in Phoenix, Ariz., said the bill has made gaining the trust of Hispanics more difficult but law enforcement is making a valiant effort to remedy the situation.
“The bill hasn’t helped build trust between police and the Hispanic community at all but our department works very hard to try to build that trust,” said Martos. “For the past 15 years we’ve done a lot of outreach programs in the Hispanic communities and just have made a real effort to get out to talk to them and spend time in their communities. It’s up to us as law enforcement to extend our hand to the Hispanic community, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Gonzalez said several Hispanics have moved into the Lee County area from Arizona because of the bill. He said the first question many ask him is how police in the area treat Hispanics.
Even though he said he knows it’s not going to happen overnight, Carleton said he is committed to improving police and Hispanic relations in Tupelo.
“We are just going to have to make ourselves more visible and more accessible to the Hispanic community,” said Carleton. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t come to police for help, because the fact of the matter is that we all live here together. And if crime is happening in Tupelo, no matter where it’s happening at or who is doing it, it affects the community as a whole.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.