Law enforcement leaders encountered a tension-filled audience Thursday night when they met with members of the black and Latino communities.
Topics ranging from street gangs to illegal immigrants were raised during the biannual B(lack) and B(rown) social mixer at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center in west Modesto.
Organizers invited Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden and Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson to discuss a variety of topics. The event, held each February during Black History Month and each September during Hispanic Heritage Month, offers a social and networking opportunity for black and Latino community leaders.
Despite the heated talks, organizers said the dialogue is necessary.
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"It did get a little intense,"saidRicardo Jimenez, president of the Latino Community Roundtable. "But it was a good forum to have this discussion."
About 70 people were in the center's main hall when Wasden was asked to address rumors about his department working with federal immigration officials on apprehending violent criminals who are in the country illegally.
Wasden said the department is having exploratory discussion with immigration officials about bringing federal resources to the area to handle illegal immigration.
"But we need to hear from the community first on what's appropriate in dealing with immigration," Wasden said.
He added that part of the exploratory discussion includes ways to protect illegal immigrants who have been victims of crime.
John Mataka, a 55-year-old Latino activist from Grayson, told Wasden he is concerned that police will start doing the job of federal immigration agents and employ racial profiling of Latino youths who are citizens or legal residents.
"If there is going to be any form of racial profiling, you're going to see a lot of resistance," Mataka said.
"More resistance than you saw on May 1," he said referring to protests against immigration reform that occurred last year in Modesto and throughout the country.
Wasden said the community will have several opportunities to provide input before any decisions are made, adding that his department never would use racial profiling.
"It's simply not true," Wasden said about the rumors. "We don't want to have these discussions without the community's input. We don't want to surprise anyone."
Other rumors about the Sheriff's Department working with federal immigration officials were addressed.
Christianson strongly denied the rumors about deputies working on the street to catch illegal immigrants.
"I don't have the resources, and it's not a priority for me," Christianson said.
But he said the department will work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on sending illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes or are in jail back to their countries after they have served their sentences.
"I have an overcrowded jail and I don't want to release these guys back into the community," Christianson said.
Fighting gangs and drugs
The discussion calmed down as the sheriff and Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden provided suggestions for turning around the gang and drug problem.
"I've never been as fearful as I am about the situation right now," said Ray Prescott, a longtime resident who considers drugs the most harmful ingredient for crime. "We can't have one side of the city going bad, because the rest of city is going to go bad. It spreads everywhere."
Suggestions were offered, such as participating in Neighborhood Watch programs, volunteering in youth activities, and attending citizen academies that bridge the gap between residents and law enforcement. More importantly, Christianson suggested that residents provide information to law enforcement to help them rid their neighborhoods of gang and drug-related violence.
"I can't do the job alone," Christianson said. "I need your help. The Modesto Police Department needs your help."
Charlotte Washington said she contracts with the Stanislaus County Probation Department to work with at-risk youths and to get them back into school and on the right track.
She said there needs to be more government funding for community and charitable organizations who have youth programs to keep kids away from gangs.
While she said there weren't enough clear solutions provided Thursday night, she said the discussion was necessary to start a dialogue about the potential for good that can come from all children.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Washington said after the event. "We hear about all the bad things kids do, we also need to hear about the good things these kids do."