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Asbury Park Press
Arrest Figures Reflect Surge In Latino Population
DAN KAPLAN/STAFF WRITER
March 23, 2004
FREEHOLD - At first glance, the numbers appear startling.
Arrests among Latino adults have climbed 108 percent in the borough from 1998 to 2002, according to the most recent state Department of Law and Public Safety crime statistics. Meanwhile, over the same five-year period, non-Latino adults visited the back of a patrol car 2 percent fewer times.
Police Chief Michael Beierschmitt says crime is on the rise, and members of the borough's large and ever-growing Latino population are partially to blame.
But the statistics, while eye-opening, must be put into perspective and should not be viewed by residents as alarming, says Capt. Michael DiAiso, spokesman for the Police Department.
The latest figures show Latinos make up about 34 percent of 1,041 total arrests in 2002, roughly comparable to their population presence in the borough.
"They are not a crime wave waiting to happen," DiAiso says, adding that the majority of the arrests of Latinos involved disputes with other Latinos.
One factor contributing to the crime jump among the sect is obvious: the increase in the Latino population, especially since 1996, when the 2-square-mile borough became an international destination for migrant workers and their families, DiAiso says.
The latest U.S. Census figures, from 2000, estimate the Latino population at 28 percent. But borough and police officials think that number easily could be several percentage points higher by now.
In an ironic twist, perhaps the most significant reason for the increased arrests is the increased trust Latinos have in police officers, authorities say. This is attributable to various outreach programs in the community, police say.
Gone are the days when Latinos were convinced a call to police was a guaranteed one-way ticket to south of the border.
"There's no longer the terror of deportation that's present," DiAiso says. "I'm not happy seeing (arrest) numbers going up, but by the same token, I don't want undocumented (crime) victims that we don't even know about because they were afraid to call us."
When arrested, Latinos - regardless of their citizenship - are treated the same as any other person in handcuffs, DiAiso says.
Police only contact the Immigration Enforcement Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, if the man or woman has been charged with a serious indictable offense, such as robbery, arson, rape or murder.
Fatima Potente, executive director of the Hispanic Affairs Resource Center of Monmouth County, which has an office on Throckmorton Street in the borough, says she also sees positive relationships forming between Latinos and police.
"The police have always been very open and very friendly, to reassure the community they're on their side," she says. "With all the publicity that's been given to the whole day labor system, I think they (Latinos) feel more comfortable that (the immigration bureau) is not coming in and taking everybody."
Police say they hope the Latinos' trust in police also will propel them to report crimes when they are the victims.
Patrolman Eduardo Santana, 29, a native of Puerto Rico, says he often meets with Latinos who come to police headquarters for a variety of reasons, such as questions about motor vehicle summonses and ways to deal with domestic issues.
To the Latinos, Santana, who joined the Police Department last summer, is just as much a confidante as he is an enforcer of the law.
"They feel very comfortable having Latino officers in the town," he says. "A lot of times they feel that being a Latino, they communicate with us a lot better. They feel we understand."
Beierschmitt says police do not care about a person's status in this country.
"The police have to protect and serve whether they're illegal or legal," he says. "You're not going to be deported for being a victim."
Two summers ago, the Police Department was forced to employ a task force to end frequent muggings of Latinos who were walking around with large amounts of cash, Patrolman Chris Colaner says.
The men did not have bank accounts and were easy targets, Beierschmitt says. Police would not say what groups were targeting the Latinos.
For the Latino man in the borough, life on a daily basis can be far too routine, which can lead to violence, Potente and police say.
Simple assault arrests grew from 18 to 42, or 133 percent from 1998 to 2002, while such offenses fell from 48 to 37, or 23 percent, among non-Latinos, statistics showed. Disorderly conduct arrests climbed from 16 to 40, or 150 percent, while they also rose among non-Latinos, from 46 to 49, or 7 percent.2
Aggravated assaults - considered violent crimes - have grown as well, but not explosively, according to statistics. Such offenses among Latinos went up from seven in 1998 to 14 in 2002, or 100 percent.
DiAiso say weapons of choice are usually knives or bats.
Over the same period, aggravated assault arrests among non-Hispanics jumped from eight to 12, or 50 percent.
Police and Potente say heavy alcohol use, a failure to realize the consequences of their actions and the Latinos' frustration with their lifestyle are the main contributors to the fights, which often occur in the late-night hours after the men have returned home from a day of manual labor.
Many of the Latinos charged with assault were involved in fights among Latinos, police say.
"All they do is work and come home," Potente says. "There's not much social activity that goes on. I think that's what maybe drives some people to be abusive."
Many of the Latinos carry a "machismo" mind-set toward conflict resolution, DiAiso says. They don't back down easily because "they feel when their manhood is threatened, they have to defend it."
Combine that attitude with borough Latinos' tendency to drink heavily, and fights happen, DiAiso says.
"A lot of them stem from drinking," Colaner, an 11-year veteran of the Police Department, says. "They end up fighting with each other."
Domestic violence calls also are on the rise, DiAiso says, because many Latinos have not been educated on the ramifications of such violence.3
Meanwhile, domestic violence is dropping among non-Latinos because of their growing awareness to the problem, police say.
Potente says that starting last year, the Hispanic Resource Center's staff has included two domestic violence counselors who met with about 100 victims last year - and that number is growing.
"Things that are condoned in other countries are not (condoned) here," Potente says. "Here in the United States, there is more of an emphasis on law."
Similarly, Beierschmitt says he sees an apparent disregard for some quality-of-life laws by Latinos.
Borough ordinance violations, which include public urination and consuming alcohol in public, have grown from 479 in 1999 to 801 last year, an increase of 67 percent, according to police statistics. The offenses were not broken down by race. "What's OK from where they came from is not always OK here," Beierschmitt says.
The highest percentage crime increase among Latinos was for theft charges, mostly for shoplifting, which increased sharply from seven in 1998 to 26 in 2002, a rise of 271 percent.
Some crime areas have seen declines among Latinos, statistics show.
For example, robberies dropped from four to zero, from 1998 to 2002.
The relationship between Latinos and police is not always rosy.
A pending federal class-action lawsuit being heard in Trenton cites several examples of what it contends are harassment and intimidation by borough officials, police and code enforcement officers.
The suit also questions the constitutionality of a loitering ordinance that allows police officers to write summonses that list no charge but "discretion of a police officer."
Since the suit was filed, the Borough Council has approved an ordinance repealing the loitering law.
Two of the plaintiffs were issued such summonses on Sept. 6. Adalberto Cruz and his cousin, Everado Cruz, had just walked out of a Broad Street convenience store with some coffee and were headed to the muster zone when an officer stopped them and asked for identification. They were frisked and each given the $150 summons, according to court papers.
DiAiso said the summons mostly is used in court to allow a disorderly person's offense to be downgraded so the defendant does not get a criminal record but still pays a fine. He did not know what prompted the two men to receive summonses.
DiAiso denies that police harass members of the Latino community, which is estimated to comprise more than 4,000 of the borough's nearly 11,000 residents.
Today, there are more officers patroling borough streets than ever before. The department consists of 33 full-time officers, including the chief, and two special officers who work part-time, Beierschmitt says.
Included among the force are two recently hired Latino officers - Maribel Mora, 27, and Santana, who has lived in Freehold for about a decade. Their ability to communicate with a large portion of the community's residents made them important recruits, police say.
Mora, of Asbury Park, who is bilingual, joined the department last January and is the force's first female officer. Mora, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, has said her presence will help to restore the Latino's public trust in police here.
"As soon as they know you speak the language, they talk to you," she says. "It's like a bond."