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August 19, 2014 | 02:23 PMWALWORTH — Latinos in the village of Walworth have asked the police to stop citing them for driving illegally.
At a community meeting Aug. 17, many Latinos asked that the department stop ticketing them because they have to drive though they don’t have licenses.
“You’re asking us to not uphold the law,” Police Chief Chris Severt said. “I’m not going to tell my officers to do that.”
More than 60 residents came to the elementary school for the Sunday night meeting. Severt said he wanted to address some concerns brought up at three prior meetings with the police department and Latino representatives.
The Latino group said that they are being targeted because of race — officers are pulling over Latinos because the police don’t want them in the community.
“You’re saying that you’re being stopped (for traffic violations) because of your race,” Severt said at the meeting Sunday night. “I was told that you needed to drive to get your kids to school and go to the grocery store, but everybody needs a license to drive in Wisconsin. That’s the law.”
Severt said he was asked to not stop Latinos by running vehicle plates.
“I cannot,” he said. “Most of the time, we pull over a driver because of another infraction. The citation for not having a license is added to other citations.”
Severt said drivers are usually pulled over for headlights out, improper turns or speeding. Only after the officer has contacted the driver at the traffic stop does the officer learn the driver doesn’t have a license.
Severt said that some license plates are run in the police system, but that’s rare.
“You don’t need to drive,” he said. “People who have a suspended license (because of another offense) can’t drive, either. They find a way to make it work.”
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, asked how Walworth Latino residents were supposed to do that.
Voces de la Frontera, which means voices of the border, is an organization based in Milwaukee that campaigns for the legalization and citizenship for those who have immigrated illegally.
“You say you’re a community,” Severt responded. “Some of you can drive. Why aren’t you connecting with each other? Why aren’t you helping each other?”
Severt also suggested the Latinos join civic and professional organizations to network with more residents in the community.
Many of the Latinos said it was too far for their children to walk to school, but Severt said there are buses available if there isn’t a safe walking route to the schools in Walworth.
Several Latinos shared their experiences with getting pulled over in the village and not being able to drive home after receiving citations.
Severt said all of the stories were sad to hear, but it didn’t mean that he could ignore the law.
“Everyone has a story as to why they should drive without a license,” he said.
“I understand why you feel that you have to drive, but the law says you cannot. Find somebody who has a license.”
Severt said if an officer sees someone who has been cited in the past driving again, that driver will be pulled over.
“We’ll give you a ticket again,” he said.
Hilda Garcia, who just recently moved from Walworth, said she was pulled over twice.
Garcia said she was stopped at night, after work, and the officer thought she was drunk.
“He gave me a ticket and wouldn’t let me drive home,” she said. “I was stopped again, the officer had checked my plates. I told him I know that I can’t drive because I don’t have a license.”
Garcia said she had driven her son home after a surgery. The officer didn’t allow her to drive home, and she had to carry her son home.
“I thought it was a very inhumane response,” she said. “He said it was a crime to drive without a license. I had to pay someone to drive me to work. I felt there was discrimination.”
Severt said the police chief in the city of Beloit has asked the department officers to not make stops based on drivers not having licenses.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “I will not ask the officers to not do their jobs.”
Severt said Beloit has a much higher crime rate than Walworth and the police have other crimes to worry about.
Neumann-Ortiz said the decision to enforce the law requiring drivers to be licensed was a local decision.
Severt said he couldn’t pick from all the laws those that he wanted to uphold.
“The tactics we use (to stop drivers) are within the law,” he said. “Everyone that drives has to have a license, has to have insurance and has to have a registered vehicle. Everyone, not just Hispanics.”
Garcia said Latinos feel targeted and harassed, and she often sees police cars parked outside the grocery store on the square.
Severt said cops are near the store often because of its location.
“It’s near a school, it’s near the police department, it’s on two highways,” Severt said. “You’re going to see cops around the square a lot.”
Police Lt. Andy Long said he often parks his squad car in the grocery store parking lot during the pickup and drop off times at the school.
“I’m there for the kids, making sure they’re safe,” he said.
Severt said the charges of racism against the police department were unfounded.
“I don’t think we have a lopsided number of tickets given out to Hispanics,” he said. “I pulled up the most recent court docket. Out of 167 tickets, less than 10 of those were issued to Hispanics. Three of those tickets were for not having a valid driver’s license.”
Why don’t they have licenses?
Walworth County Sheriff’s Deputy Alex Torrez, a fluent Spanish-speaker, spoke briefly at the Sunday meeting, saying he couldn’t stay that long because he was frustrated with the discussion.
“Everyone who is revoked or suspended, they can’t drive, either,” he said. “These people (the Latino audience) have no ability to get a license. The problem isn’t here, locally. The problem is at the federal level. All this talking isn’t going to solve anything.”
In Wisconsin, about three years ago, the state cancelled all driver’s licenses that didn’t have proper registration documents, Long said after the meeting.
Since then, many of the Latinos in Walworth have been unable to reapply for a license because they don’t have the proper paperwork.
Torrez said that Latinos are in the community to stay, and they need to find a way to make it work.
“The government is saying you can stay but that you can’t have a license,” he said.
Neumann-Ortiz said “to be undocumented is not a crime” and that the Walworth Police Department was persecuting the Latinos.
Severt said he’s upholding the same laws for everyone.
“I’m not going to treat you differently than anyone else,” Severt said. “You cannot drive without a license.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles website states that to get a driver’s license, a resident must have proof of identify, date of birth, proof of citizenship or legal status in the U.S. and a Social Security number, among other items.
Many of the Latino residents in Walworth do not have a Social Security number, though it’s unclear if that’s because of immigration status.
Severt said the police department doesn’t check immigration status.
“That’s not our job,” he said.
Neumann-Ortiz asked if Severt supported a path to citizenship or a legal ID system for illegal immigrants.
Severt said no.
“I support being a legal citizen,” he said. “I don’t think just giving people licenses is right. There are ways to become citizens.”
Neumann-Ortiz said the Latinos would more likely work with the police if they knew they had an advocate for them in the department.
“Would you like me to lie to you?” Severt asked. “You can’t be a community within another community. You are segregating yourselves.”
Severt also suggested that more members of Walworth’s Latino community learn English, to help when police or emergency responders are speaking with them.
“If you’re going to be in the U.S., you need to be a part of it,” he said.