Gwinnett County police Cpl. Chris Deming speaks Friday morning with a taxi driver waiting on a fare at the Cedar Village Shopping Center near Norcross. The conversation was part of an outreach to the Hispanic community urging them to be unafraid of reporting crimes.
NORCROSS — On Oct. 7, a Hispanic man was robbed at gunpoint outside his Norcross-area apartment. He flagged down a law enforcement officer and described his assailants.
Shortly afterward, another armed robbery was reported nearby. Then another, this time at a different apartment complex. Suspect and vehicle descriptions were given (and matched).
Within minutes, two men were arrested. Two guns, a victim’s wallet and cash were recovered. Thanks to the victims’ willingness to communicate, the system worked how it’s supposed to.
In Gwinnett’s Hispanic community, that’s a rarity.
Robberies are victimizing the county’s Latino residents at an alarming rate and, whether from a general distrust of police or a fear of deportation, they go largely unreported. In the last four months, 65 have been reported in two key pockets along South Norcross-Tucker Road and Jimmy Carter Boulevard alone.
Gwinnett County police believe that’s a small number of the crimes actually occurring — but they’re trying to change that.
“The problem we have is they’re not reporting the crimes, and sometimes when they do, they’re waiting periods of days or (until) they see that another person has been victimized,” Gwinnett County police Sgt. Edward Restrepo said.
Restrepo is the leader of the community response team at GCPD’s west precinct, which is based near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Interstate 85. The precinct covers most of unincorporated Norcross and Peachtree Corners and a large portion of the county’s Latinos.
On Friday morning, Restrepo, other precinct leadership, officers and volunteers canvassed key surrounding areas dense with Hispanic apartment complexes and businesses. Sharing flyers and asking for them to be posted in windows and offices, their message included encouraging residents to avoid problem areas like wooded pedestrian shortcuts.
Above all, though, the GCPD representatives were trying to build trust.
“You can see the same people all the time, and you try to build those relationships,” Officer Shane Kelly said, “but sometimes if they’ve had one bad experience with the police, that’s what they base everything on.”
In the case of the Latino community, that “one bad experience” can be most of a lifetime spent elsewhere or current misconceptions about the way immigration processes work.
In many Latin countries, the relationship between police and residents is not a good one. Corruption and the fear of retaliation are common.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office enacted several years ago a program called 287(g), which allows it to check the immigration status of anyone booked into the local jail and notify federal officials if it comes across an undocumented resident. Gwinnett County police, though, have little to do with that.
Especially when it pertains to victims.
“I can assure you that we’re not going to ask their immigration status if they’re the victim of a crime,” Restrepo said.
But many members of the Hispanic community aren’t buying it.
Mario Guevara is a native of El Salvador and covers crime and immigration issues for Atlanta-based Spanish-language newspaper Mundo Hispanico.
“Some of them prefer to just be victims of robbery, because they say, ‘I can recover 300 bucks, I can recover 500 bucks, but if I am arrested I will be deported and eventually I will have to pay a lot more money to come back to the United States,’” Guevara said Friday. “It’s hard.”
“I know what the people believe, I know what they think,” he added. “They don’t trust the police.”
Those police believe local victims are being targeted from within the Hispanic community and by criminals of other races — both groups which recognize easy marks that are the least likely to report their actions. At least proportionally, arrests are fewer and farther between than in other areas, in part because it’s harder for law enforcement to spot and analyze trends when only some crimes are reported.
During the aforementioned bust earlier this month, a fourth victim walked up to uniform officers while they were making arrests and performing searches. Like the three before him, he claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint and was able to positively identify the pair of suspects being detained.
Even while making a successful arrest, though, authorities were reminded of the difficulties of working with an often frightened, misinformed Hispanic community.
“During (an) interview,” a police synopsis said, “the suspects admitted to several additional robberies for which police reports could not be located.”