Rights groups challenge Zebulon Police Department's practice of targeting Latino churchgoers

April 29, 2010 12:00 am

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RALEIGH – Community churches are supposed to be a safe haven for worshippers, not sites for police to target. But Latino churchgoers in eastern Wake County say police officers routinely set up illegal checkpoints outside their parish – and even interrupt services themselves.

This morning, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF), the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice launched an investigation into the practice of targeting Latino churchgoers by the Zebulon Police Department and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.

Congregants at the Iglesia de Dios “Catedral de Jesus” in Zebulon report that Zebulon police officers, with alleged participation by Wake County sheriff’s deputies, have repeatedly posted license checkpoints outside the church during church services. Members of the congregation report that police officers routinely “wave through” Caucasian and African-American drivers, stopping only those drivers who appear to be Latino.

“The reality is that these types of license checkpoints are often no more than covers for blatant racial and ethnic profiling of the Latino community,” said Katy Parker, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCLF. “This includes those members of the community who are undocumented as well as those members who are American citizens and lawful permanent residents of North Carolina.”

The groups have filed a public records request asking police to provide all documents related to license checkpoints, as well as all documents related to compliance with the North Carolina Racial Profiling Act.

Police officers, congregants say, have entered church property and interrupted services to harass members of the congregation seeking information. Officers routinely select the entrance of the church at 717 S. Arendell Avenue to set up license checkpoints during regularly scheduled church events, such as church services on Saturday nights from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., church members say.

These scare tactics by police have caused a significant decrease in church attendance, as many congregants are afraid to attend church lest they be harassed by law enforcement in the process.

“Even though Arizona’s outrageous new anti-immigrant law has made national headlines, we see similar disastrous policies and practices here in North Carolina,” said Dani Martinez-Moore of the NC Justice Center. “It’s shameful that checkpoints are routinely set up in Latino neighborhoods and in front of churches where services are conducted in Spanish.”

The three groups sent a letter this morning to Zebulon Police Chief Tim Hayworth and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison outlining the illegality and unconstitutionality of these practices under both state and federal law.

“Using local police officers for immigration enforcement erodes public trust in law enforcement, systematizes racial profiling, creates incentives for illegal arrests and prevents police from doing their job, failing to keep some of our most vulnerable communities safe,” said Rebecca Fontaine of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

To read the three organizations’ North Carolina Public Records Request, visit: www.ncjustice.org/?q=node/499

The public records request is part of “Uncovering the Truth,” a weeklong national campaign of coordinated actions and advocacy highlighting the effects of local law enforcement collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on community safety.

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