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The Washington Post

Hispanics Still Face Prejudice In District

11 Years After Riots, Reports List Abuses

By Sylvia Moreno

May 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

Eleven years after a police shooting of a Latino man triggered rioting in the District and after subsequent efforts to address the city's systemic abuse of Hispanics, the Latino community still faces discrimination and violations of civil rights, according to a series of reports issued today.

"Many of the same problems identified after the 1991 disturbances continue to plague the Latino community," concludes a summary of the reports, released by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, nine major Washington law firms and a civil rights review panel of local and national Hispanic advocates.

"If there is any place where Latinos should be free from exclusion and civil rights abuses, it is here in this capital city," the summary says.

The reports come on the 11th anniversary of the Mount Pleasant riots, three days of looting and burning sparked by the wounding of a Salvadoran man by a rookie D.C. police officer. Subsequent inquiries by the Washington Lawyers' Committee, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the now-defunct Latino Civil Rights Task Force found that the community backlash was caused by frustration from years of harassment and discrimination.

The Civil Rights Commission, in a 1993 report, concluded that Latinos in Washington were routinely abused by police and were denied "basic civil rights to an extent that is appalling." The panel said institutional obstacles in D.C. government denied Hispanics equal opportunities in employment, education, social services and the criminal justice system.

The eight reports focus on police abuses and police/community relations; criminal justice system; health care; education; employment; immigration; rental housing; and homeownership. They draw sweeping conclusions based on published U.S. census data and other reports and research, with recommendations that range from more bilingual immersion programs in the public schools to establishing a Latino credit union.

In gathering material for the employment discrimination report, pairs of Latino and non-Latino testers each made 122 calls inquiring about employment. The Hispanic callers encountered discrimination -- in some cases, being told to consider other jobs -- about one-fourth of the time. The non-Latinos who called the same employers were more likely to receive salary information and to be asked to submit a résumé immediately.

"I think these reports just help to document how little progress has been made," said Yvonne Vega, who co-chaired the civil rights review panel for the project and is executive director of Ayuda Inc., a nonprofit legal clinic for low-income Hispanics and immigrants.

The reports are to be discussed today at Shrine of the Sacred Heart on 16th Street NW after a noon prayer service marking the anniversary of the riots. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, a more extensive briefing will be held at Lincoln Middle School at 3101 16th St. NW.

The 1991 clashes brought attention and services to a community composed largely of low-income immigrants who fled civil war in El Salvador. Latino activists emerged and developed an extensive network of agencies to help residents. The Latino Civil Rights Task Force was created to monitor allegations of abuse and to pressure city officials to hire more Spanish-speaking police officers, fund social programs and open D.C. government jobs to Hispanics.

But the District's financial crisis in the mid-1990s cut into services for Latinos, and the task force disbanded. Latino participation in elections and civic affairs remains low, and no Hispanic has been elected to public office in the city. The emphasis on advocacy and litigation of civil rights issues, activists acknowledge, dwindled even as the proportion of Latinos in the District grew to 8 percent in 2000.

"We're at a point where we still need to deal with these concerns and issues with a task force -- not in the community, but in the city council with the participation of the mayor's office," said Saul Solorzano, executive director of CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center and co-chairman of the civil rights review panel. "It needs to . . . come up with a set of solutions to make sure Latinos are included in the governance of the city."

The report on police relations cites a police survey of citizen satisfaction, noting that 3rd District officers, who patrol the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, received the poorest rating for officer demeanor of the city's seven police districts. Third District residents also gave police the poor rating for job performance and the second-worst score in the city, behind Anacostia, for police misconduct.

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said the survey showed "where we're falling short. . . . There are still too few Spanish-speaking officers. It may be more than the language. Knowledge of the culture is commensurately important."

He said the department recently decided to create a Hispanic liaison office with branches in Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, similar to the department's Asian liaison office in Chinatown.

The report on police says that fewer than 5 percent of department employees are Latino and that fewer than 4 percent of those hired in 2000 were Hispanic. No senior managers are Latino, and only one commander is Hispanic.

Gainer said police representatives recently went to Puerto Rico to recruit officers. They found 50 college-educated bilingual officers ready for lateral entry into the D.C. police department and 300 additional applicants for police jobs. He said the department is making a new effort to translate recruitment brochures into Spanish and to advertise for officers in Spanish-language media.

The report also says that only one 911/311 operator is a certified Spanish speaker and that during a recent three months, commercial bilingual assistance was used 117 times to help Spanish speakers.

The employment report says the District's failure to track how many of its 33,000 government workers are Hispanic, as recommended after the riots, "calls into question the city's commitment to a goal of incorporating more Latinos into the public workforce."

Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the District cannot legally require employees to provide information on their race, ethnicity or national origin. "But I do think . . . the workforce of the District is reflective of the diversity of the city," he said.

Another report says the mayor's Office of Latino Affairs, charged with advocating for Hispanics, translating for agencies and making health, education, employment and social services more available, is falling short of its mandate.

Rosario Gutiérrez, executive director, said that since she took the job in 2000, the budget has increased from $912,000 to $2.9 million, with funds going to 53 organizations that provide services to 35,000 Latinos.

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