Anti-Latino racism alleged at meeting in Norristown

Posted: September 21, 2012

"Anti-immigrant sentiments have unleashed a wave of hate on our communities, and Norristown is no exception," community organizer Carmen Guerrero told residents at a public meeting in the Montgomery County seat Wednesday, decrying what she said were worsening relations between the Latino population and local police.

The gathering of about 50 people at an East Main Street community center was attended by Councilwoman Linda Christian, town administrator David Forrest, and representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Police Chief Russell Bono was invited, but it was agreed that Forrest would represent the municipality.

Organizers read an 11-page "white paper" consisting of eight "testimonies." The document was compiled by Juntos, a nonprofit, Latino human-rights group in Philadelphia that was contacted by Guerrero. It alleges instances of "racial profiling, harassment, [and] unjust detention" dating to 2010.

Four of the testimonies use the alleged victims' names. The other four cite fear of police retribution in using aliases.

In his testimony, Gerardo Vega, owner of Taqueria Mexico Lindo, a West Main Street restaurant, said that about 15 customers were present one winter day in 2011 when "police stormed in" without a warrant. They demanded papers from the employees in the kitchen and the patrons in the dining room.

"Children began to cry and hug their parents - just terrified," said Vega, who was born in Mexico and is a legal permanent resident of the United States. "Police shouted at them to be quiet or they would send them back to Mexico." One of the customers, a woman with diabetes, fainted and had to be taken to the hospital, he said.

Vega said police told him they had come to the restaurant looking for someone who had entered through its back door. Vega, who was working in the kitchen near the back door, insisted that no one had entered that way. The resulting negative publicity from the raid, he said, has caused even regular customers to stay away.

"In order to have safe and trusting communities, every member of that community should be allowed to live with dignity, free from fear and persecution," said Juntos executive director Erika Almiron.

Forrest said Norristown took the allegations seriously.

"If there is something that we are doing wrong, we are going to make corrections," he said. "We are going to discipline our officers."

But, he cautioned, the incidents described were no more than allegations until they are investigated. "Until the investigations are done," he said, "I would not accept everything you heard tonight as the gospel truth." He did not say whether those investigations would be internal or performed by an outside agency.

At its height in the 1940s, Norristown's population was about 38,000 and predominantly white. In the decades since, the town has changed dramatically. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos make up more than two-thirds of the 34,324 residents counted in the 2010 census. The Latino population alone jumped from 10.5 percent in 2000 to 28.3 percent in 2010. For all racial groups, median household income is $35,714, and 17 percent of residents live in poverty.

The police department comprises 55 uniformed patrol officers and six full-time detectives.

To improve police-community relations, Juntos recommended monthly meetings with department officials, further investigation of the alleged incidents, cultural sensitivity training for Norristown police, and the hiring of more Latino officers.


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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