published Friday, January 6th, 2012

Chattanooga Police Department notes spike in Hispanic crime victims

Jose Mendez sits with his arm in a sling after being robbed and shot on Nov. 20. Mendez was working on a car outside of his residence near Main Street in downtown Chattanooga when a man robbed $450 from him.
Jose Mendez sits with his arm in a sling after being robbed and shot on Nov. 20. Mendez was working on a car outside of his residence near Main Street in downtown Chattanooga when a man robbed $450 from him.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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CRIMES AGAINST PROPERTY

Hispanic victims/All ethnicities

Tennessee Chattanooga Police Department

• 2001: 4,854/375,317 340/22,768

• 2002: 5,058/373,797 251/18,613

• 2003: 5,424/381,902 273/17,679

• 2004: 6,232/388,783 420/20,314

• 2005: 7,766/396,619 388/17,961

• 2006: 9,288/392,670 465/17,965

• 2007: 9,737/398,787 476/18,062

• 2008: 9,167/393,760 576/18,765

• 2009: 8,208/369,487 454/18,427

• 2010: 7,116/355,194 463/16,031

Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation


HISPANIC POPULATION

2000 —2010

Tennessee: 123,838—291,920

Hamilton County: 5,481—15,140

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Jose Mendez was checking the water and oil of his Honda Accord outside his house on Nov. 30 when he was approached by a man asking for $2.

"I told him I didn't have any money," Mendez said. "Then he asked me for a gas jug and I told him it wasn't mine."

That's when the man pulled a gun and shot Mendez in his right arm as he tried to flee. The man reached into Mendez's pocket and pulled out $450.

"I started crying," Mendez said. "I thought I was never going to see my wife and children again."

Since about August, the Chattanooga Police Department has seen a spike in robberies involving Hispanic victims, according to Sgt. Scott Bales, supervisor of the robbery division.

While troubling, the increase comes as no surprise to authorities and Hispanic communities that have seen crimes against Hispanics soar in recent years even as the overall number of crimes in the state and county has declined.

Statewide, overall crimes against property, which includes burglaries and robberies, decreased from 375,317 in 2001 to 355,194 in 2010 -- a 5 percent decrease. Meanwhile, cases in which Hispanics were the victims increased 47 percent, from 4,854 to 7,116.

The total numbers include crimes committed against businesses and financial institutions -- for which ethnicity is not recorded -- and individuals.

The same trend is seen in Hamilton County and other local law enforcement departments, data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation show.

Property crimes involving Hispanic victims that were reported to Chattanooga police increased from 340 to 463 -- 36 percent-- from 2001 to 2010 while the overall number of crimes decreased from 22,768 to 16,031, or 30 percent.

In 2011, there were 340 incidents with Hispanic victims, including 88 burglaries and 78 robberies, according to Chattanooga police.

In general, numbers are lower than in 2008 and 2009, when crimes involving a Hispanic victim peaked at close to 10,000 in the state and more than 500 incidents reported to the Chattanooga Police Department, TBI data show.

And the Hispanic population also has grown at a faster rate than the crime rate.

But stories of houses being broken into and people being robbed are abundant in the Latino community, according to workers with La Paz Chattanooga, an organization that works closely with immigrants.

"We've had a lot of people tell us recently they were robbed," said Barbara Derthick, client services assistant. Many report being shot or stabbed as a result.

That's a trend in the community as a whole, not just crimes involving Hispanics, said Sgt. Scott Bales, supervisor over the robbery division at the Chattanooga Police Department.

"They are not hesitant to use more force here lately," he said.

Population and Other Factors

Immigrants long have been targeted by criminals who choose them because they often carry cash, may distrust police and may not speak English well.

And the Hispanic population in the state and the county has grown exponentially in the last decade. U.S. census figures show there were 5,481 Hispanics in Hamilton County in 2000 and 15,140 in 2010. That is a contributing factor to the increase in the numbers of crimes against Latinos, officials said.

Bales said that a few weeks ago officers visited several Hispanic-owned businesses, many of which had been robbed, to talk to customers about not carrying too much cash and encouraging owners to install video surveillance cameras in the stores.

Because many Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, don't have bank accounts, they become easy targets, Bales said.

"Also, I think [robbers] may count a little bit on the language barrier, maybe they try to use that as something they can't call the police as easy and fast," he said.

Hispanics in the area also tend to live in lower-income households, which according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics experience higher rates of overall property crime and household burglary compared with higher-income households.

More Violent

Victims of robberies said crimes are getting more violent.

On Nov. 30 Alexander Morales was taking out the trash outside Carniceria Loa on Broad Street on Chattanooga's southside when he was approached by two men. One of them hit him on the face with a gun, knocking him to the ground.

As he got up to run away, one shot at him, hitting him in the hand.

Nothing was taken but Morales said police think the men planned to rob the store.

He's lived in Chattanooga six years and this was the first time anything like that had happened to him.

"Before you would only hear about people getting robbed but not shot," said Morales.

"Since this happened, clients have come up to me to say they've been robbed, there are a lot of cases in laundromats," he said.

Chattanooga's Highland Park area, in particular, has seen more robberies involving Hispanic victims since August, Bales said.

On Sept. 21, Joel de Leon was just arriving in Chattanooga from Delaware when a man approached him in the Highland Park neighborhood asking if he was interested in selling his truck.

"I said 'yes,' then he asked me for money," de Leon said. "When I told him I didn't have any, he took out a gun and shot me by the ribs."

He stayed in the hospital four days with broken ribs and damage to his lung. Now de Leon said he's not sure he wants to stay in Chattanooga.

What To Do

One of the challenges is that people don't report crimes, Bales said.

Several years ago the Chattanooga Police Department started offering the public a citizen's police academy class in Spanish to educate them on the role of the police, how to report crimes and to build trust, but the program was discontinued, Bales said, because its effectiveness was unknown.

"Hispanics are still in a pattern of keeping the money on them," he said, which makes them easy target.

The department is discussing whether to offer the classes again, said Bales.

Meldoy Bonilla, with La Paz, said sometimes people are afraid of reporting crimes if they are in the country illegally or if they come from a country where there's police corruption.

La Paz also is working with the community to encourage people to open bank accounts and to report crimes, she said.

"We had a guy who came in, he said he was shot but didn't file a police report initially. He didn't even know how to file a report," she said.

Besides the loss that can be sustained in a robbery, the trauma of being victimized or hurt can linger.

A month after he was robbed and shot off Main Street, Mendez still carries a burden from that day: an arm sling, a shattered bullet in his upper arm and thousands of dollars in medical bills.

"I'm now afraid to go out," said Mendez, 36. "Every time I have to go out, I see if there's anyone outside, and if there is I wait before I leave the house."

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about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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