By Mike Heine/The Week
(Published October. 3, 2006, 8:38 a.m.)
The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating whether Whitewater police officers are racially profiling and harassing Latinos in the area, said Karyn Rotker, the Poverty, Race and Civil Liberties Project attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin.
Rotker wouldn't provide examples of profiling but said she's heard of enough instances to warrant an investigation.
Concerns in the city's Hispanic community erupted after an Aug. 8 raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at Star Packaging, 960 E. Milwaukee St. Federal agents detained 25 suspected illegal Mexican immigrants, and the business's owner, Allen Petrie, 47, of N7521 County P, Whitewater, was arrested by local police on suspicion of conspiring to commit identity theft.
Being in the United States without documentation is a civil status violation, not a crime, Rotker said.
The ACLU is trying to determine if Whitewater police were investigating immigration issues, which is something only federal agencies should do, Rotker said.
It also is seeing if local police are overstepping their bounds in other contacts with minority members of the public, she said.
"I have heard from a number of people who have increased my concern that this is a broader problem than just the raid on Star Packaging," Rotker said.
Police department officials insist the Star Packaging raid was in investigation of Petrie for alleged identity theft. Petrie is suspected of telling Hispanic employees to use false names and Social Security numbers.
Immigration officials got involved when it became apparent that some employees might not be citizens, police said.
Rotker said she has gathered little evidence but wants to find out if there has been profiling by Whitewater officers, including Larry Meyer, who led the Star Packaging raid.
The attorneys who represent Petrie and Star Packaging have accused Meyer of profiling Hispanic employees.
A search warrant affidavit says Meyer and other officers spoke with Petrie on several occasions and told him he could not knowingly employ people using false or stolen Social Security numbers. Despite the warnings, Petrie continued to do so, according to the search warrant.
Meyer is the subject of a pending federal civil suit filed by another Whitewater businessman, Steve Cvicker.
In his complaint, Cvicker, owner of Whitewater Rock and Mulch, alleges Meyer verbally intimidated employees of Mexican descent and told them to not work at the business.
Meyer and the police department have denied Cvicker's allegations.
David Durand, vice president of Latinos United for Change and Advancement, said he has heard "credible evidence" of Hispanics being targeted by police in Whitewater.
"It's developing a lot of fear in the community and is going to put a major distrust in the community," Durand said. "Instead of calling the police department for other crimes and so forth, people are afraid of what all this profiling will create for them now and in the future."
Many Hispanics are "scared to go to work or just to live their daily lives," Durand said.
Whitewater Police Chief James Coan said in earlier interviews that the raid at Star Packaging was not random and was not done without warning.
The Janesville Gazette was unable to reach Coan for a comment Friday.
"We're not going into a McDonald's looking for illegal immigrants. It revolves around the business practices of this company," Coan said earlier.
He added, "These things in Whitewater grew out of other investigations, and one thing led to another. We felt obligated to investigate it.
There is no concerted effort on the part of the police department to target illegal immigrants, Coan said. In fact, the department has Hispanic outreach programs and is dedicated to helping the Latino community, Coan said.
Durand agreed that educating the Latino community is key.
"People need to understand what are their rights," Durand said. "Even though they may be undocumented, they still have legal rights. They still have protections under the Constitution."
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