News: Unsafe Refuge

New policing could be just what Cincinnati's immigrants need

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Jymi Bolden

Jose Devillar of Lower Price Hill tried to report an attack.

Dozens of pairs of sad, serious eyes gaze out from Siusan Durst's photographs.

The subjects are Central Americans who have come to live and work here. They have the weary and unsettled look of people who have traveled far and worked hard. Many look afraid.

In Durst's recent show at the Base Art Gallery — Long Distance: Latinos in Cincinnati — placards told the immigrants' stories.

One story repeats itself again and again. Immigrants are regularly robbed, often violently, by thugs who believe nothing will be done about it.

The thugs are frequently right.

Jose DeVillar had a pretty good job cleaning a downtown Mexican restaurant — that is, until someone stole his pants.

DeVillar, 48, lives in Lower Price Hill with his son, Luis.

His other six children are at home in Zacatecas, Mexico, with his wife.

One night last month, DeVillar awoke to find five strangers in his apartment. The one standing by his bed ordered him to turn on the light. When he did, he saw three women and two men, one of them armed with a baseball bat.

The intruders were helping themselves to DeVillar's possessions. One had his pants, which held his wallet. In the wallet were his "papers": his ID card, his Colorado driver's license, his card from the Mexican Consul, his work documents — everything that made it possible for him to work legally — and about $250 in cash.

DeVillar tried to grab the pants. But when he raised his hands, one of the men said, "Don't move! If you move, we'll kill you."

The baseball bat bounced off DeVillar's shoulder and chipped paint off the door frame next to him. He kept still. Moving fast, the thieves departed, still carrying his pants.

DeVillar ran down the stairs and into the street, hoping in vain to retrieve his wallet. The thieves disappeared, taking with them more than a pair of trousers.

Much more.

The foot on Luis' back
Criminals prey on Hispanic immigrants, according to Sgt. Sylvia Morales of the Cincinnati Police Department's Crime Stoppers Unit.

"They're illegal, they carry money and they won't call the police — that's the perception," she says.

Reliable figures about the number of undocumented workers in the Tri-state don't seem to exist. Guesses vary.

Sylvia Krull, owner of Mama Conchita, serves as an advocate for Cincinnati's Central American immigrants (see "Home Sweet Casa," issue of July 26-Aug. 1, 2001). She believes there are not fewer than 3,000 Central Americans in and around Price Hill, and the population is increasing daily.

What is generally agreed is that fear of being found and deported is one component of a greater reluctance by the immigrants to rely on institutions such as banks and the police.

The majority are men who are supporting families left at home. They come here to work legally, many holding two jobs.

After being robbed, DeVillar called 911. About 10 minutes later firefighters arrived to see if he was injured. He wasn't.

Then he waited. A little more than an hour later, police showed up. The officer listened to his story, but didn't write anything down. The officer said, according to DeVillar, there weren't any suspicious people in the area, so he couldn't make a report.

The officer asked DeVillar what he wanted.

"All I want is to be treated like a human being," he said.

About the same time, 17-year-old Luis DeVillar learned what had happened to his father. He was furious. Luis rounded up a couple of friends and borrowed a baseball bat of his own. They went around the block, looking for the robbers, without success.

It didn't take long for the would-be vigilantes to run into police. Father and son both say an officer drew his weapon in the process of rendering the young men face-down on the pavement. The officer subsequently placed his foot on Luis's back, presumably to make sure he wasn't a threat.

No one was arrested.

'We didn't see anything'
The police have no interest in anyone's citizenship, Morales says.

"That's a matter for the immigration people, not the police," she says. "These people are victims of a crime, and we treat them that way. We're doing everything we can."

Although the police department has no special task force for crime against Central American immigrants, it has attempted to define the problem.

But unfortunately no one can even tell how big the problem is. It turns out Hispanics are listed as "white" when crime reports are entered into police computers. When Morales looked for statistics about "crimes involving male Hispanics, we didn't see anything," she says. "There's no way to put it in the computer."

Jose DeVillar went to the District Three police station to file a complaint the night after he was robbed. No record of the incident could be found. He was advised to contact the officer directly. So far the officer has been unavailable and hasn't returned his calls.

DeVillar is no longer working. His employer wasn't willing to keep him on without papers.

Samuel Ramirez, 44, is from Guatemala. He manages Mama Conchita, a Lower Price Hill grocery. He has survived two robbery attempts. During the second, he was dragged out of his van and beaten. He escaped serious injury by crawling under the truck. He filed police reports after both incidents.

Ramirez recently confronted a bat-wielding gang of six people who were screaming insults on the sidewalk in front of the store. He asked what the problem was. Their response was, "I'm not going to tell you anything," Ramirez says.

When police arrived, officers chose to search Ramirez. The crowd dispersed.

After the second robbery attempt, he says, a police detective said, "You have to defend yourself," suggesting the largest knife Ramirez could legally carry.

"We just want to be friends, not enemies," Ramirez says.

If the police department was really serious about implementing Community Problem Oriented Policing, the approach mandated by the city's agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Lower Price Hill would be a perfect place to start.

"Working together, we can help each other," Morales says. ©

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