By DAN JOHNSON
Alarmed at the growing concerns of local Latinos who feel targeted by law enforcement personnel, St. Vincent de Paul Church held a public meeting Sunday afternoon that included church leaders and Petaluma Police Department personnel.
“Many local Latinos say that they are being stopped by police who think they may be illegal immigrants or look like illegal immigrants,” said Ken Fujimoto, senior organizer of the North Bay Sponsoring Committee — a broad-based group of churches and other non-profit and business groups that helps immigrants face their many challenges — which helped to organize the event. “People can’t be stopped for that reason, but they can be stopped for speeding or having a malfunctioning tail light.
“We are asking the police department to put together a workshop for people in which they could explain when and why people can be legally stopped.”
Over 100 people crowded into Sunday’s meeting, which included Father Gary Lombardi, lay leader Abraham Solar and parish member Adriana Smith of St. Vincent and Sgt. Tim Lyons and School Resource Officer Ed Esponda of the police department. Spanish was the primary language spoken, and English translation was provided.
“The purpose of the meeting was to begin to establish a better relationship between the Hispanic community and the police,” Lombardi said. “We want to help local Hispanics observe the rules of our country and be sure that the police understand Hispanics.”
“We don’t want to point fingers at anyone,” Fujimoto said. “We hope to help build a better relationship between the Hispanic community and the police department. The problems of Hispanics have been persistent, but they now seem to be coming to the forefront.
“In 2004, Windsor was having the same problem between Hispanics and law enforcement officers. The two sides didn’t really understand each other: The police department needed to understand the perspective of Hispanic families, and Hispanic families needed to understand why they were being stopped.”
Fujimoto said that event organizers invited Petaluma Police Chief Steve Hood to the meeting, but he was unable to attend, so he asked Lyons to participate.
“We would like to engage the police chief in an ongoing conversation about these problems, and hope that he will be able to attend a follow-up meeting at St. Vincent on Nov. 12,” Fujimoto said, adding that having “very few” Spanish-speaking Petaluma police officers is a concern.
Fujimoto sees the local problems as representative of broader national issues.
“We seem to be living in a political atmosphere that is anti-immigrant, and there is a very strong sentiment that something wrong is taking place,” he said.
Lombardi felt Sunday’s meeting was a good preliminary effort to address local concerns.
“It was a good first step to build a mutual relationship of understanding,” he said.
(Contact Dan Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org)