AG meets to discuss attacks on Latinos
Plainfield crimes spur talks with activists, police and community leaders
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
BY JULIA M. SCOTTStar-Ledger Staff
Plainfield needs to make "systematic changes" to prevent crimes targeting Latinos, according to state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who met with community leaders for two hours last night behind closed doors.
"I don't just want to be in response mode," he said to reporters following the meeting.
Of the attacks that targeted Latinos in Plainfield and North Plainfield in spring 2004 and summer 2005, only one of the beatings has involved charges of bias intimidation.
To make sure those patterns don't emerge again, Harvey proposed giving immigrants identification cards so they can open a bank account and deposit their wages instead of carrying around cash.
"They have cash in their pockets and some people know it," he said, adding that many of the crimes happen after someone leaves a bar.
To make the community safer, Plainfield needs to hire more Spanish-speaking police officers, increase police patrols, educate the community about safety and hold more meetings between law enforcement and residents. Harvey also suggested posting signs in Spanish in bars alerting patrons to past attacks and linking car services with bar owners to encourage patrons to get a ride home.
Harvey scheduled last night's meeting shortly after activist Carmen Salavarrita renewed claims of bias attacks against Latinos last month. Harvey said that it is "fairly rare" for a community to come together and show concerns about bias crimes, even though he meets frequently with local law enforcement and residents.
Almost 30 people, including Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow, Plainfield Police Chief Edward Santiago and Safety Director Jiles Ship, attended the meeting at St. Mary's School on West Sixth Street.
Salavarrita believes some of the attacks on Latinos have been bias crimes, even though officials have said otherwise.
"A lot of people want to keep it quiet but that's not going to solve anything," she said. Salavarrita, who lives in Piscataway, said victims come to her for help because she has close ties to the community as a board member of Plainfield's El Centro Hispanoamericano and as a trustee of the Plainfield Health Center. She blames "a group of black people" for the attacks.
Another Latino activist, however, says the entire community is actually working together.
"The message we are sending is our community will not be divided," said Flor Gonzalez of the Latin American Coalition.
Gonzalez was not the only one to downplay Salavarrita's allegations.
"Crime statistics reflect that victimization is not solely a Hispanic issue," Santiago said. The police chief agreed the city needs to hire more Spanish-speaking officers in addition to the 14 currently on staff.
"We are getting more and more investigations that require interviews with Spanish speakers," he said after the meeting.
Santiago suggested starting a citizens' education program at the police academy to increase awareness of safety issues.
Councilman Ray Blanco similarly dismissed the claim that there is tension between the African- American and Latino community.
"They're not killing us on the streets," he said to a resident who had come to give Harvey a personal letter. "You know this and I know this."
Julia M. Scott covers Plainfield. She may be reached at jscott@star ledger.com or (908) 302-1505.