Dalton, Ga., police work to improve relationship with Spanish-speaking community

Dalton, Ga., police work to improve relationship with Spanish-speaking community

April 22nd, 2018 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

Officer Osvaldo "Ozzie" Sicairos poses at his desk at the City of Dalton Police Services Center on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Dalton, Ga. Sicairos runs the Spanish-language Facebook page for the Dalton Police Department.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Officer Osvaldo "Ozzie" Sicairos poses at his desk at the City of Dalton Police Services Center on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Dalton, Ga. Sicairos runs the Spanish-language Facebook page for the Dalton Police Department.

Officer Osvaldo "Ozzie" Sicairos poses at his desk...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

En español.

The Dalton Police Department hasn't always had a positive relationship with the city's Latino population, but some community members in the North Georgia city say strides are being made to change that.

Dubbed the "carpet capital of the world," Dalton and its carpet-weaving industry have attracted many Latino immigrants since the 1980s. Nearly four decades later, residents who speak primarily Spanish make up about 47 percent of the city's population.

But over the years, a sense of fear has permeated the Latino community. It stemmed from the belief community members were unfairly targeted with traffic stops, even for the most minor offenses. The high number of roadblocks in areas with high concentration of Latinos also contributed to the unease, said America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton.

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Police claimed the roadblocks were set up for seat belt and drunken driving checkpoints. But in Georgia, driving without a license calls for an automatic arrest. And since undocumented immigrants are unable to acquire a license, they are automatically booked and taken to the Whitfield County Jail where Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials might pick them up.

"[Police] didn't understand the connection between the roadblocks and deportation," Gruner said. "They would say, 'We are not deporting people.' We would say, 'You are not doing it directly, but this is the gateway for people to be deported.'"

"People were afraid ," she said.

Laura Diaz of Deportes Morelia, a sportswear store, is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Dalton her entire life.

When she was younger, her father would drive her and her siblings around because he had a license; her mother did not. And after her parents split up, her mother couldn't drive them around.

"We struggled," Diaz said. "We would use taxis all the time."

One time when she was 10, she said, her mother was arrested for driving without a license.

"Our whole world shattered to me and my siblings," she said.

Nine years later, Diaz's mom is a resident now, but it didn't come without a struggle.

"American people don't understand that," she said. "They say, 'Just go back to your country,' or 'If you want papers, apply for them.' It takes a lot of time and money."

***

In the years since the controversial roadblocks, the Latino community's perception of Dalton police has begun to improve, Gruner said.

The police department and city mayor began holding meetings to hear residents' immigration concerns. They heard from people and how they were feeling and the pain they were going through, Gruner said.

In the beginning, it was very tense, she said.

"They didn't trust us, we didn't trust them. But little by little, it has been changing," she said. "It's taken a long time to understand that we are part of the community. A lot of people still have the memories of what happened for many years."

Eduardo Guerrero of Libreria Buenas Nuevas, or "Good News Bookstore," agreed.

"It's gotten better," Guerrero said in Spanish. "[Police] behaved badly with the Latinos. But it's been about three years that they don't do things like that."

Guerrero recalled a time when he said it seemed police would stop Latinos for "any little thing," such as missing a traffic light or not using a turn signal. But now, he said, police seem to be going after the people who are "troublemakers."

In 2016, three roadblocks were conducted. Two were held on the same day. Last year, Dalton police held no roadblocks, police spokesman Bruce Frazier said.

The police department also has been rolling out new programs and initiatives aimed a reaching the ever-growing Latino community.

Last fall, the department began hosting a Citizens Police Academy for Spanish speakers. And earlier this year, it launched a Spanish version of its Facebook page.

Frazier said officers interact dozens of times per day with people who speak Spanish either primarily or exclusively, and the department has hired more Spanish-speaking officers — it now employs four Latino officers on its team of more than 80 officers.

And pretty much every officer has at least an emergency-level Spanish- speaking ability, Frazier told the Times Free Press. "[They] can speak in basic phrases, like 'where are you hurt,' things of that nature."

Gruner said police are more visible now, too.

Officer Osvaldo "Ozzie" Sicairos stops by many of the Latin stores while he's on duty to get to know the shopowners.

Guerrero said people still get nervous when police are around, especially if they're undocumented or because of their experience with police corruption in their home countries.

Kevin Rosales has been helping his parents run Tienda y Panaderia Centromex, a bakery and grocery store. He said the store was very busy one day until a police officer parked just outside.

"We didn't get a single customer after that until he left," he said. "I swear. Like, people just kept driving by. They just get scared."

That fear can lead to under-reporting crime, police say.

"One of the messages that we try to get out to people is, if you were a victim of crime, and you are reporting that crime, then an officer is not going to show up and ask for your papers," Frazier said.

Sicairos has seen it happen.

"Every store I go in, I'd say, 'Hey, do you ever notice anyone steal a gallon of milk, steal groceries, whatever?' 'Yeah, all the time,'" he said. "I'm like, 'Wow. Why haven't I ever come over here to take a report about any of that? 'Ah, you know. I feel bad about it' or 'Don't want the police there all the time.'"

Sicairos said another reason crimes sometimes don't get reported is because calling 911 can be intimidating. He said people who primarily speak Spanish tell him they get nervous or stressed or afraid if they think police will show up and start asking them a bunch of questions in a language they don't understand.

"You can call 911," he tells them. "They have a language line if there's nobody working that speaks Spanish, and they'll figure out what you need, and we're going to come over here and help you. [We] try to build that relationship up because people rarely seek help for anything other than [when] somebody's dying."

***

For a few weeks in March, Gruner and other community leaders in Dalton and across the state collected signatures for a petition opposing a bill that was making its way through the Georgia House.

The bill, called the END Act, or Ensuring Necessary Deportations, and also known as Senate Bill 452, would have required local police to notify prosecutors if they knew a suspect was in the country illegally. It also would have required courts to determine whether a suspect was in the country without permission and to report that information to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when sentencing.

While the bill died during the legislative closing session earlier this month, Frazier said if it had passed, the police department would have had to comply with it.

"We aren't allowed to choose which laws we will or will not enforce," he said. "Our job is to enforce the laws and ordinances passed by elected officials."

Gruner said the relationship between the police department and the Latino community needs to continue improving, and the best way to do that is for the two to understand they exist in the same community.

"The political climate is really negative toward immigrants right now," she said. "But just remember that even on the federal or state level, [with the] laws or initiatives, at the end, we are all living in Dalton and we need to find ways to live together."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.


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