Latinos in Gaylord claim police discriminationby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Some Latino residents in the small town of Gaylord are filing a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. They say they are victims of racial discrimination and retaliation by the town's police department.
Gaylord, Minn. — Latinos in the small south central Minnesota town say police in Gaylord are targeting them in traffic stops. Gaylord's police chief has investigated the complaints and said he found no evidence of discrimination.
Gaylord sits at the intersection of three highways in the midst of Sibley County's cornfields. The city hugs a lake larger than the town itself. Along that same lake is Michael's Foods, an egg processing plant. Thirteen percent of Gaylord's population of just over 2,000 is Latino, and many of those people moved to the city to work at Michael's.
Minnesota Public Radio News reviewed police records and found that Latinos receive roughly 45 percent of the tickets written by the Gaylord Police Department. That's 45 percent of the tickets going to 13 percent of the population.
Some of the town's Latino residents live in a dilapidated trailer park that overlooks the lake. Several of the Latino residents here say they feel harassed by Gaylord police.
One of them is Jose Chapa, who moved here in 2005 from Texas, said he was stopped by Gaylord Police Officer Eric Boon two years ago as he drove home from work.
"I went to work to get a friend," Chapa said. "Eric Boon was stopped outside and he stopped me for nothing besides being Hispanic. He used the pretext that one of the license plates on my truck was bent, nothing more. That was in 2006. I stopped driving out of fear."
Citation records show that Chapa received a ticket in 2006 for driving without a license. Chapa is so concerned about police stops, he said he now makes the half-hour walk to work.
Officer Boon will be named in one of the three Human Rights complaints, along with the city of Gaylord and its police department.
A review of police records showed that about half of the tickets Latinos get in Gaylord are solely for driving without a valid Minnesota license. No other offense is cited. Most of the people said they had licenses from other states like Washington. To get a license in Minnesota, a driver needs to show a birth certificate or passport.
When asked whether they are here illegally, several said they were citizens or in the country with work permits or Green Cards.
One of the Gaylord residents is here illegally. Antonia has no immigration papers and we agreed to change her name because she fears deportation. Antonia holds a job and has several children. She said one day Officer Boon pulled alongside her trailer.
"And he stopped along me and asked for my name," Antonia said. "He asked if I was Hispanic and I said, 'Yes.' He told me to give him my license. And I gave him my license from Washington, I don't have one here. He said, 'How long have you lived here?' He told me I needed to change my license because that one wasn't valid in Minnesota, and I had so many days to change it. I told him, 'All right.'"
Another state's license is still valid in Minnesota even after a driver establishes residency.
Antonia took the driver's test and a week later Officer Boon knocked on her door and asked to see her license. She showed him the test.
He returned a few weeks later as she pulled up to her trailer.
Antonia said Officer Boon asked if her license had arrived yet. When she responded that it had not, she said the officer told her he would arrest her if he saw her driving again.
Antonia said she still drives to and from work and to take her kids to doctor's appointments. She said she can't get a Minnesota license without a birth certificate.
Other residents describe times when Officer Boon has shined his flashlight into their trailers at night. Two other residents said Boon entered their homes without permission.
Officer Eric Boon denies those allegations and said he is not targeting Gaylord's Latino residents. Boon is one of three officers who police Gaylord.
"I'm a very aggressive officer, I love doing traffic," Boon said. "Maybe if the other part of the department started doing a little more traffic it wouldn't look like it's just me, but I've had this bad thing with Latinos since I moved to Gaylord."
Boon joined Gaylord's police department in 2004. That same year, Gaylord's police chief investigated complaints by Latino residents that Boon discriminated against them. The chief found no evidence of discrimination, but he did make the department attend cultural sensitivity training.
Boon said he is baffled by people's complaints about him. He said for every ten people he stops for speeding, eight have valid insurance and licenses.
"I don't care what nationality, what color, they are valid," Boon said. "You give eight warnings. Two of them happen to be Latino without driver's licenses. Now what ticket, as a police officer, are you going to write or would you feel that you would have to write?"
Earlier this year, 19 Latino residents of Gaylord formally complained to Police Chief Dale Roiger about Officer Boon. Roiger spoke with three of those who complained. He said some complaints contained no contact information and others had already been investigated.
"I think there is some exaggeration to some of the stuff that they are saying," Roiger said.
Roiger said he has no explanation for the disproportionate number of citations written to Latinos.
Gaylord's City Administrator, Kevin McCann, said he was not aware of those figures. He said he is satisfied with Chief Roiger's investigation.
"At this point the city is committed to maintaining an inclusive community where all people can feel safe and work here and they'll be treated fairly and with respect," McCann said. "So we're going to move forward."
That's what the complainants said they heard in 2004 when they first complained. They approached migrant worker organization Centro Campesino, with their complaints about the Gaylord Police Department. Centro is working with the community to file civil rights charges. They are asking for the discrimination to stop.
"Families are disillusioned with the police because they stop Latinos based on their race but also because it costs them money," said Victor Contrerras, Centro Campesino's executive director.
Contrerras said community members feel police are making money off the backs of Latinos. A ticket for driving without a valid license brings a fine of $180.
Contrerras said the complaints will be filed early next week.
- Morning Edition, 10/24/2008, 7:40 a.m.