DALTON, Ga. — Of 32 traffic checkpoints conducted by Dalton police this year, most took place in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods or at entrances to the city’s carpet factories where many Hispanics are employed, records show.
The most frequent ticket issued at the checkpoints — representing 22 percent of all tickets — was for driving without a license, which can lead to deportation if the person is in the country illegally.
Some Hispanics in Dalton say police use the checkpoints as a way to target illegal immigrants. But police say preventing accidents and improving neighborhood safety are their goals, and neighborhood ethnicity has nothing to do with the checkpoints’ locations. Nearly half of Dalton’s population of 33,128 is Hispanic, figures show.
“We don’t use ethnicity as any criteria,” Police Chief Jason Parker said Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide the community of Dalton with a safer environment. We view the community in its entirety to implement our strategy to reduce the number of accidents. The numbers are simply a byproduct of that strategy.”
Mayor David Pennington said the police department has not changed its strategy in recent years, and he noted the department is not responsible for Georgia immigration laws.
“I understand there is some anxiety,” he said. “From the city of Dalton’s standpoint, the Latino population is almost half of Dalton and very important to us. If they have any concrete evidence [of targeting Hispanics], we would like to see that.”
Under a 2008 Georgia law, anyone cited for driving without a license must be arrested and taken to jail. Because Whitfield County participates in the federal 287 (g) program that trains local police to enforce U.S. immigration laws, officers automatically check the immigration status of everyone booked into the jail.
Bruce Frazier, the police spokesman who provided the information about the checkpoints, said he did not have information on how many people cited in the checks were Hispanics or illegal immigrants.
Rosario Rendon, a legal immigrant who has lived in Dalton eight years, said many in the immigrant community are living in fear.
Rendon, who was stopped at a checkpoint this year near her house on Grimes Street, said friends often text her to let her know where the police are set up.
“Apparently there was a big one [May 21] where they took a lot of people down on Third Avenue,” she said. “People are really afraid. A lot of people are leaving; they are taking their children out of school.”
Her neighbors believe ethnicity is a criterion for the checks, she said.
“People feel they have the roadblocks in predominantly Hispanic areas. You never see them on Dug Gap Road,” she added, referring to a middle class, mostly non-Hispanic neighborhood.
She said she doesn’t have any problems at the checkpoints because she has a driver’s license but worries that others who don’t might end up being deported.
And under a new law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, people who transport illegal immigrants can be criminally charged. A first-time offense of transporting seven or fewer illegal immigrants is a misdemeanor, but someone convicted of a second offense or who moves more than eight illegal immigrants could be charged with a felony.
“I have family members who are undocumented, so if I give them a ride, that means I can be charged for transporting people without documents,” she said.
But according to the law, which goes into effect in July, someone can be charged for transporting an illegal immigrant only if they are caught doing so while committing another crime.
BY THE NUMBERS
Georgia and Tennessee require people to produce a Social Security number and proof of citizenship or legal status to obtain a driver’s license, so people in the country illegally can’t get one.
Dalton police records for total traffic citations issued throughout the city in the first four months of this year show speeding as the most common citation, with seat belt and child restraint violations coming in second and third.
But the numbers shift for the 278 citations issued at checkpoints. Along with the 63 citations issued for driving without a license, the most common citation, records show there were 19 citations for driving on a suspended license. People cited for both offenses usually are arrested. Frazier said he could not provide information on how many of those arrested were Hispanic.
Out of the citywide citations, 3,011 of the people ticketed were white, 426 were Hispanic and 296 were black, records show.
In the same period, police issued 152 citations citywide for no license and 100 citations for suspended licenses, so more than one-third of the citations for driving without a license took place at checkpoints.
Echoing the overall city numbers, tickets issued for seat belt and child restraint violations were the second and third highest at checkpoints.
Traffic Unit Officer Steve Zahn said police conduct checkpoints in conjunction with state seat belt or drunken-driving enforcement operations, but also at its own discretion.
Recently, the department began targeting high-crime areas with checkpoints, hoping to net more serious offenses such as burglary suspects, he said. The department also makes sure the checkpoints are spread throughout the city, he said.
Records show that, in checkpoints so far this year, police arrested one person on drug charges and served four outstanding warrants.
Parker said police also target areas that have had a lot of accidents recently, if possible.
Checkpoints frequently are set up in the same area, records show. Three have been held at the intersection of Grimes and Nelson streets this year between Jan. 29 and April 23.
And some days see multiple checkpoints. On Jan. 29, six were set up in different places around the city. On Feb. 26, it was five, records show.
Many Hispanics live in the neighborhoods around Grimes and Nelson streets and also in the areas around some of the Jan. 29 and Feb. 26 checkpoints.
In Tennessee, law enforcement officers must provide public notice about the time and place where checkpoints will be held, but Georgia law does not require prior notification.
Policies regarding checkpoints seem to vary from department to department.
Both Cleveland and Chattanooga police said they do not conduct checkpoints within their cities. That is handled by the Tennessee Highway Patrol and local sheriff’s departments with assistance from the police, Chattanooga police spokeswoman Sgt. Jerri Weary said.
Calhoun, Ga., police conduct four or five checkpoints a month, according to Sharon Jolley with the department. The department also participates in larger checkpoints with other agencies, she said.
A spokeswoman with the Rome, Ga., police department was not able to provide checkpoint information Wednesday.
LIVING IN FEAR
Many in Dalton’s Hispanic community are afraid to leave their homes because they never know when they will have to go through a checkpoint, Nicolasa Nava said.
There used to be frequent checkpoints off Cleveland Highway on Cattleman Drive and Frontier Trail, near where she lives, but they have stopped since most Hispanics have left, she said.
A naturalized citizen originally from Mexico, Nava said she and her husband rent apartments in the neighborhood where they live, but most of the Hispanic tenants either have left or have been detained by the police and deported, she said.
Nava moved to Dalton from Chicago seven years ago but is considering leaving because she feels Hispanics are being discriminated against.
“We’ve [her family] never been treated badly, but you feel bad, you wonder where we are heading,” she said.
Louis Fordham, vice president of resources and facilities for J&J Industries in Dalton, near where at least two checkpoints have been held this year, said they haven’t had an impact on the company’s work force that he knows about.
Parker said the police department has not received any complaints from the community about the road checks or accusations that police are targeting Hispanics. Anyone is welcome to talk to him or other officers about their concerns, he said.
“We want to address those concerns directly — face-to-face communication is the best way to solve problems,” Parker said. “We have worked as hard as we can to remove barriers and provide access to the police department. I try to run this department as closely as I can to the expectations of the citizens, but I don’t know what those expectations are if we can’t have a discussion about it.”
Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or 423-757-6578.
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-980-5824.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...