Thursday, February 26, 2009

Latino Concerns Aired at Meeting

Late into Wednesday’s special meeting on public safety, community activist Flor Gonzalez took the microphone during public comment to recognize the family of homicide victim Christian Tigsi, saying, “The family is looking for justice.”

Tigsi was shot dead early on Feb. 8 in front of the city’s main train station in the city’s first homicide of 2009. Mourners came to the site for days afterward and Gonzalez was among protesters at an anti-violence rally held there. The crime remains unsolved.

Gonzalez brought a somber note to the meeting, which up till then had been a recitation of public safety efforts and pitches for more funding and personnel to intensify them.

“Everything we heard tonight is beautiful, but we need to be realistic,” Gonzalez told the crowd of about 100. At her Watchung Avenue office, she said, she had just been crying with families of three Latino crime victims who left behind 24 children.

Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, said when Edward Santiago was the police chief, the Latino community had communications with the crime unit.

“Now, we don’t have it,” she said.

Santiago’s title was abolished last year in favor of a police director, a post being held by Martin Hellwig, who is also the director of Public Affairs and Safety. Hellwig offered condolences to the family and said, “I believe the perpetrator will be brought to justice.”

But he also named several initiatives to ward off what he called “gruesome and horrific” assaults on Latinos, such as a sting operation in which undercover officers left a bar feigning drunkenness to trap would-be assailants. Latinos are known often to be carrying cash and are often targeted when intoxicated, he noted.

Hellwig said he could show statistics on bars and crime while Santiago was in office, but also pointed out that Santiago remains on the force as a captain.

Since taking over, Hellwig has reorganized the Police Division, adding two new bureaus, Traffic and Community Relations. See for details.

Gonzalez also remarked on a high vacancy rate downtown since Paramount Properties acquired many storefronts and doubled the rent. She recalled the days when Macy’s was the downtown anchor store and referenced a strategic planning effort to improve the city that involved hundreds of people several years ago.

Now, she said, she wants officials to “learn what the Spanish community is all about.”

As for the ongoing assaults and other crimes against Latinos, she said, “We need to do something about it,” drawing vigorous applause especially from a large number of Latinos in the audience.

The topics covered Wednesday ranged from gangs to downtown security cameras to needs of the Police and Fire divisions. Plaintalker will report on some of these aspects later.

--Bernice Paglia


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