By T.B. Lefever:
When I was still relatively new to policing, I saw a young man walking alongside the road around three o’clock in the morning. He wasn’t using the sidewalk and I didn’t recognize him as someone from the neighborhood.
“What reasonable explanation might there be for this fellow to be walking through this neighborhood at this hour?” I wondered to myself. The area was very residential and it was rare for people to be out so late. Then, I remembered the words of a Lieutenant I respected from roll call one night.
“There ain’t no virgins after midnight!” he said pointedly. “Stop and talk to everybody.”
He was trying to encourage the watch to get out there and do something about the rash of car break-ins and burglaries that were sweeping our streets. I made a U-turn and prepared to engage the young man as a prime candidate for a suspicious person’s stop, or what’s more commonly referred to as a “signal 54.”
As I approached the subject, I realized that he was a Hispanic male. Demographically, my patrol area was overwhelmingly black folks with some white sprinkled in, but there were very few Hispanics. In fact, this was the first time I had been in the position of asking a Latino for identification. When the subject handed me a Honduran identification card, I honestly had no idea how to run him on my database.
First off, instead of the three names (first, middle, last) commonly displayed on ID cards or driver’s licenses in the United States, there were five! “How do I run this name?” I thought to myself.
Secondly, to my surprise, the date of birth was formatted so that the day and month were reversed. 06/08/1980 didn’t mean June 8th, 1980, but August 6th instead. I must have run seven or eight variations of the name to no avail. At some point, it occurred to me that the man simply was not in the system because he was undocumented, illegal, or whatever you prefer to call people such as himself. Such a case can make it very difficult to get any type of accurate ID on my end.
On this night, it turned out that my “54” had a perfectly reasonable explanation for walking through the neighborhood at that hour. He lived just down the road and was walking home from a late night spot he had been working at as a cook. Aside from the language barrier getting in the way of effective communication, he was cooperative. Knowing that there was a decent chance of him getting robbed in that neighborhood at that hour, I put him in the back of my car and gave him a “courtesy ride” home.
After that experience, I decided it was a lost cause to proactively police Hispanic subjects for the next year or so. There were so few of them in my area that the opportunity did not present itself on a regular basis anyway. In dealing with them as victims or witnesses, I acquainted myself with the way to recognize a proper first and last name and how to ask the pertinent biographical questions in Spanish; but that was that. When I left the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and gained employment with my current agency, I realized quickly that I was going to have to acclimate myself to policing in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods. There are a few ways that my policing style and decision making have changed as a result.
When I was an APD cop, the prevalent culture was to make lots of arrests within the department. “Atlanta. Come on vacation, leave on probation,” was a common phrase echoed by police there. I remember hearing it again. And again. And again. In Atlanta, if you pulled someone over and discovered they were driving without a license or driving with a license suspended, they were going to jail with no questions asked. It was just what you did. When I began policing the streets of my current locale, I was hit with the reality of how many illegal immigrants were actually out there driving. I sometimes joke, shut your eyes and throw a rock in any direction and there’s a 50% chance you’ll hit a car being driven by a driver with no license.
When I first hit the road here, I continued my old practices for a short time as humans are creatures of habit and it was all I knew. I soon realized that my old ways were making me extremely inefficient as a beat officer. How can I handle my 911 calls, protect the businesses on my beat, and look for potential robbery, burglary, and breaking and entering auto perps if I’m constantly running back and forth to County Jail with someone in custody for driving without a license? Forced to adapt to my surroundings, I began the practice I use now, where I merely write a citation and see if the driver knows anyone with a valid driver’s license who can show up on scene to take the vehicle; whether it be a family member, friend, or whomever. Otherwise, the vehicle gets impounded. Such course of action is typical in my current police department.
In my opinion, everyone’s got to have the same consequences no matter who they are or where they are from. If an illegal alien drives with no license because they cannot get one and a citizen drives with no license because they lost their privilege, how do you let one go home while the other sits in jail?
One day I pulled over a black guy driving with a suspended license. Whereas he would have taken that ride to jail by the good old APD standard, I came to the realization that I couldn’t do it that day. I proceeded to write him a ticket and see if he could get someone to pick up the car. I feel I’ve got to at least be consistent with the discretion I use in my decisions. Aside from some of my policing methods changing, there are a number of things I’ve learned as a police officer working in an area with a substantial illegal or undocumented immigrant population.
One of the more important things that I have learned is that people are people. My city is a classic case of the haves and have-nots, and I work exclusively in the land of the have-nots. Just because they are have-nots, and many are not legally supposed to be here, the vast majority of people making up the community I serve are decent and hardworking people with mouths to feed. The Mexican ghetto is not more violent than any Atlanta ghetto I ever worked in. There is a gang presence, but it is far less out in the open than what I became accustomed to in Atlanta.
In fact, despite a similar level of poverty, there are far less shootings. I attribute this to the fact that many of the people in this community come from Central and Southern American countries that have strict laws against gun ownership. When they come here, many of them do not have an understanding of the 2nd Amendment rights that we Americans take for granted. In my opinion, this leaves them susceptible to other problems.
The first problem that I have noticed is that the illegal immigrants are sitting ducks for pedestrian robberies. Perps are sometimes incredibly stupid in a lot of ways, but many of them are actually quite smart street-wise. Many of the people I serve walk everywhere, always keep their cash on their person, and are unarmed because their culture and their situation dictates it. The perps know this. It is fairly common for a Hispanic male to get pistol whipped and robbed while walking down the street in my city because the offenders feel confident enough that they both have cash and will not present the threat of a firearm in self-defense.
The other obvious problem the Hispanic community faces is stabbings. While there are no guns, there are knives. Knives and alcohol lead to brandishing, slashing, sticking, poking, and cutting. I’ve seen a few gnarly injuries here, which is an experience I did not have previously.
Just because a lot of the Hispanics on my beat are susceptible to violent crime does not mean there is not a high level of danger and potential for violence. I’ve been in Mexican drug houses where there are shrines to worship the drug gods and patron saints of crime. In these homes, there will literally be a statue of a skeleton and offerings of money, alcohol, and narcotics at its feet. Such offerings are believed to invite protection for the drug dealer. This practice is rooted in the Sinaloa state of Mexico. If you see one of these statues, it means you are in Cartel territory, or at least in the midst of wanna-be’s who can sometimes be more dangerous if they feel like they have something to prove.
At the end of the day, the hood is the hood, crime is crime, and the job is the job. I don’t have an environmental preference either way. I love the food on my beat but it’s going to eventually soften me up if I’m not careful. One thing is for sure. I really need to learn more Spanish as it could save my life or the life of another one fateful day at the office.
T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.