Roswell Hispanics Claim Police Racial Profiling

Heather Clark, AP, April 1, 2009

Roswell residents’ complaints about racial profiling of Hispanics by police officers have prompted a state advocacy group to request intervention from the U.S. Justice Department and the state attorney general’s office.

Paul Martinez, New Mexico director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, sent a letter asking the Justice Department’s Houston office and the state attorney general’s office to intervene and assess the situation.

LULAC says the Roswell Police Department requires Hispanics to provide their Social Security numbers and documents proving their immigration status when they are stopped, questioned or when they ask for assistance.

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Roswell Police Chief Robert Smith, who was appointed a year ago, said he’s heard the complaints, but those making the charges have been unable to provide him with specific names or dates so he could substantiate what happened.

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LULAC also accuses Mayor Sam LaGrone of being “less than cordial” toward Hispanic business leaders. The organization accused him of being behind a cut in city funding to the Hispano Chamber of Commerce in retaliation for advocating for Hispanics and complaining about abuses of power.

Juan Oropesa, executive director of the Hispano Chamber, said the mayor told him that Roswell does not need two chambers of commerce and has not been supportive of the Hispano Chamber.

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LULAC’s letter also expressed concern about several past incidents involving the police and Hispanics, including:

* A police officer ticketed 18-year-old Karina Acosta for blocking a fire lane and asked her for proof of legal U.S. residency in November 2007. When she failed to provide it, the officer telephoned immigration authorities and she was sent back to Mexico. The case led to student demonstrations in support of her in Roswell.

* A Hispanic man, Javier Aguilar, who was suffering from mental illness, died in police custody in March 2008. An interim police chief said then that pepper spray, batons and a Taser were used to place Aguilar in handcuffs.

Martinez said Roswell’s Hispanic community is “angry and very upset” and that police and city government’s actions are not consistent with New Mexico’s multicultural society.

“They’re living before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I felt very compelled to send that letter to the Department of Justice,” Martinez said. “We just can’t have that in New Mexico.”

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Roswell residents say racial tensions in town also are making Hispanic community members increasingly reluctant to call police about crimes, thereby jeopardizing overall public safety.

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A city policy says officers may contact immigration authorities if they suspect a person they come across in their normal course of duties may be living in the United States illegally. If officers arrest someone they suspect may be an illegal immigrant, they are required to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement under the policy, Smith said.

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Felipe Botello, editor of the local Spanish weekly “El Marcianito,” Spanish for the little Martian, said his newspaper has received complaints from Hispanic residents about the police.

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