State of Flux

 

Can Forest Park keep its Hispanic residents? That may depend on police.

 

By Sonam Vashi and Rachel McBride

Contributing reporting by Angie Tran

Photos by Audra Melton

September 13, 2021

  The Forest Park Issue

How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked more than 120 Forest Park community members about the journalism they needed this past spring and summer; this story emerged from that feedback. Rachel McBride and Angie Tran, two of the reporters on this story, are Canopy Forest Park Fellows, community members whom Canopy Atlanta paid and trained to learn reporting skills to better serve their communities.

AROUND 2016, HUNDREDS OF Forest Park’s Hispanic residents and business owners crowded into Las Nubes, a large event hall on Old Dixie Highway for an unprecedented, standing room–only public meeting on a shared problem: a rapidly declining Hispanic population—the businesses’ customer base—in the city. While metro Atlanta’s Hispanic population has grown over the last decade—Clayton County’s 19 percent jump was the second largest in the state—the opposite has been true in Forest Park. The percentage of the city’s population that is Hispanic has dropped precipitously, by 10 percentage points since 2010, from 37% to 27%.

 

“We were all going to be forced to close down” because of the customer loss, says Elvia Pelayo, whose family owned Don Juan Mexican Grill and helped organize the event. Pelayo says she and her family would put a timer on for five minutes, waiting as “not even one car would go through Jonesboro Road,” where many Hispanic businesses like hers were located. Maria Montes, who has run La Unica beauty salon for 20 years, had been losing stylists who didn’t want to come to Forest Park anymore.

 

“We were hurting bad,” Pelayo says. “So, we decided to talk about it.”

 

The cause, according to community members, was a combination of state law and local police: under Chief Dwayne Hobbs, who’d led the department for more than 20 years, Forest Park PD annually performed an average of 11,000 traffic stops between 2016 and 2018, according to records obtained by Canopy Atlanta. (Forest Park’s population is near 20,000, though many more people drive through the city, as it is located next to multiple highways.) Beyond speeding and lacking proper tags, one of the most common charges was driving while unlicensed—a regular issue among undocumented immigrants, of whom there are an estimated 12,000 in Clayton County, and a crime with steep penalties under Georgia law, which does not provide immigrants without legal status a pathway to obtaining a driver’s license. While supporters of the law argue that Georgia should not provide legitimacy in the form of a driver’s license to immigrants without legal status, in places like Forest Park, enforcement of the law can create a disproportionate impact: although Hispanic people aren’t overrepresented in all Forest Park traffic stops, they represented nearly two-thirds of charges for driving while unlicensed between 2016 and the present, despite comprising less than a third of Forest Park’s population. (Forest Park is not alone here: a 2016 report from the Advancement Project and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights found Hispanic people comprised 63 percent of arrests for driving while unlicensed in Roswell, Georgia, though Hispanic people comprise 13 percent of the population.)

Many Hispanic-owned businesses line Jonesboro Road in Forest Park; several business owners say fears of overpolicing have driven away customers in the last decade.

Pelayo and several other Hispanic business leaders invited the Forest Park Police Department, among other agencies, to attend the meeting. (They also invited news organizations, like the local Univision station, but no one showed, Montes says.) Attendees shared their complaints and stories; police listened.

 

But after that meeting, the business owners say, they didn’t see any change in the number of traffic stops. Pelayo and the rest of her family moved away from Forest Park; her family’s restaurant, and other businesses, like those located in the once-vibrant International Discount Mall along Jonesboro Road, shuttered. Hispanic people would say ¡No para Forest Park, no! / I won’t go to Forest Park!, Pelayo says. “It was known. And we really tried to get it out there on the news . . .  but you just felt like no one listened.”

 

Starting in 2019, policing in the city radically changed: a new Forest Park police chief, hired in that same year, is listening, decreasing overall traffic stops by more than half, to fewer than 5,000 per year, and instead focusing on community-centered crime strategies. “It’s getting better,” says Montes. 

 

With a decrease in the number of traffic stops conducted by the Forest Park Police Department, local business owners say immigrants without legal status are returning to Forest Park. But a complex combination of limited access to public transportation, the state’s lack of a pathway to a driver’s license for immigrants without legal status, and local police enforcement policies creates a constant state of precarity—and a lack of options—for Forest Park’s undocumented immigrants, most of whom hail from Latin America and support many Hispanic businesses and cultural organizations. Without changes at the state or national level, immigrants without legal status are intensely sensitive to how local police enforce the law through traffic stops, and, for some Hispanic businesses and immigrants without legal status, Forest Park’s prior policing reputation keeps them away. Within this state of flux, can Forest Park keep its Hispanic communities?

SAN FELIPE DE JESUS Catholic Church, at the intersection of Conley and Jonesboro Roads, hosts weddings, COVID vaccinations, and religious classes within its white stucco walls, primarily for Spanish speakers, many of whom do not have legal status and drive from East Point or Stockbridge. But, prior to 2019, on many Sunday mornings, Forest Park police would be waiting for drivers at a checkpoint by the nearby cemetery, says Rev. Jacques E. Fabre, known as Padre Jacques, a Haitian immigrant who, over the course of his decade in the city, has become an advocate for parishioners. Pelayo and Montes also described the checkpoint at the cemetery on Sundays, and Pelayo remembers that, prior to 2019, police would conduct stops by the local dual-language school; she says unlicensed parents would have to arrange carpools for their kids with licensed drivers, like herself. Former police chief Hobbs did not respond to Canopy Atlanta’s multiple requests for comment; his lawyer declined to answer Canopy’s specifics about Hobbs’ tenure as police chief. 

 

Fabre says members of his congregation were arrested, often for driving while unlicensed, and that traffic stop arrests can be the first step to deportation for immigrants without legal status. (Arrestees are held at the Clayton County Jail, which is under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff’s office, not the Forest Park Police Department.) Many churchgoers told Fabre they were too afraid to come to church anymore, he says. When he repeatedly brought concerns to police, Fabre says he saw “no response, no movement.” 

 

Fabre would sometimes organize financial help when a family was unable to pay fines; as a result of a 2008 bill, Georgia law requires a mandatory minimum punishment of $500 and potentially two days in jail for driving without a valid license. (Violating the law repeatedly can lead to a felony record.) In Forest Park, a citation for driving without a valid license typically carries a $740 fine—more than six times the usual $115 fine for exceeding the speed limit. Hispanic people are disproportionately represented in charges for driving while unlicensed, though they are not overrepresented in all Forest Park traffic stops. (By contrast, while Black people make up just about half of Forest Park’s population, they make up two-thirds of all traffic stops.)  

Multiple members of Forest Park's Hispanic community recalled a previous checkpoint set up by Forest Park police near San Felipe Catholic Church on many Sunday mornings under former police chief Hobbs. Former police chief Hobbs did not respond to Canopy Atlanta’s multiple requests for comment.

In Forest Park, where more than a quarter of Hispanic people live below the poverty line, Fabre says fines have a serious effect—but he understands that “this is not the police’s problem … the law tells the police what to do.”

 

Citations for driving while unlicensed end up punishing undocumented immigrants for something they cannot access, according to a recent Georgia Budget & Policy Institute report, which also suggests that creating a pathway to a driver’s license could improve road safety, raise a modest amount of revenue, and slightly lower Georgia insurance premiums. During the last legislative session, the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly didn’t pass House Bill 833, which would have expanded access to licenses; it’s unlikely to pass next year, either. 

 

“Why don’t [state lawmakers] do like Chicago?” Fabre says, referring to states like Illinois that allow temporary driver’s licenses to be accessible to immigrants without legal status. “The problem is with Georgia.”

 

Without access to driver’s licenses, and in a county where public transit access is still years away, despite Clayton County opting into the MARTA system in 2014, undocumented immigrants in Forest Park have been left with few options. In order to get to work, or even take small trips to the grocery store, immigrants without legal status must walk, carpool, do without, or risk driving without a license. Immigrants without legal status often support the taxis that drive along Jonesboro Road in Forest Park—a rarity elsewhere in the Atlanta area—to avoid being stopped by police, as many do not have the bank accounts or credit cards required to use Uber or Lyft, says Montes. (Taxis tend to be equally expensive to rideshare apps, or more so: Montes says a ride from Tara Boulevard to La Unica costs about $12.) 

Without access to a driver's license, many immigrants without legal status support local taxi businesses to avoid potentially being stopped by police.

A lack of transportation options means less access to jobs as well as other services. Local elementary school parent liaison Gabysol Quiroz says she knows of only one English class for Spanish speakers in the county that doesn’t require a green card or other documentation, and it’s several miles away, in Morrow. Clayton County also has fewer immigrant advocacy groups or dual-language services compared with more populous Gwinnett County; thus, there are fewer resources to push for policies, like fewer checkpoints or lower fines, that might benefit undocumented immigrants. “The south [metro] is not organized,” Fabre says. And so, people left, “because they couldn’t go out,” he says. (For this story, Canopy Atlanta attempted to speak to multiple immigrants without legal status about driving without a license, but all declined, out of fear of deportation or retaliation for speaking publicly about policing or to the media.)

 

But policing in Forest Park changed in late 2018, as divisions grew between city leadership and longtime police chief Hobbs: in October 2018, the Forest Park City Council fired Hobbs, a white man, and several months later hired Nathaniel Clark, Forest Park’s first Black permanent police chief. Hobbs subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the City of Forest Park had already been planning his retirement and that his firing was motivated by his race, according to the complaint he filed in court. In April 2021, the City of Forest Park voted to settle the case.  

 

Clark is bespectacled, with a Southern drawl, and previously served with the police department in Albany, Georgia, among others, in several decades of public service. When he joined the department in 2019, he assessed community needs at churches and schools—which is where he heard concerns about the number of traffic stops. When asked about hearing that certain communities were feeling targeted by police, Clark says, “I took a look at the data, and it appeared that some of their concerns had validity,” referring to the number of citations being issued by the department. “Even other law enforcement officers [in other cities] had the same concept about the traffic stops and citations being an issue” in Forest Park, Clark adds.

 

He emphasizes that the department does not make traffic stops or write citations to generate revenue, and says traffic stops are a useful policing tool that sometimes leads to felony arrests. But, Clark says, “every traffic stop does not have to result in a citation.”

 

Instead, Clark says he’s directing the department to increase “non-enforcement contacts”—giving out verbal warnings rather than citations—and implementing a policy called Operation 10-50, which he’s used in previous departments: “If [an officer’s] not busy, every 50 minutes, we want you to stop and talk to at least two people and ask the question, What can we do to best serve you?

Source: City of Forest Park
Source: City of Forest Park

That policy has had a dramatic effect on the fabric of life in Forest Park. Since Hobbs’s firing and Clark’s start, overall traffic stops have declined drastically, from 11,000-plus per year to just over 3,000 in 2020, according to data obtained by Canopy Atlanta. Citations on the charge of driving while unlicensed are still disproportionately received by Hispanic people, but the number issued has dropped from nearly 500 in 2016 to around 150 in 2020. (City revenue from fines and fees has similarly plummeted.) At the same time, total reported crimes in the city have declined to a 10-year low, though it’s unclear what role the COVID-19 pandemic has played in the drop. Clark sees it as evidence of the success of his community policing strategy, but Quiroz often sees a lack of trust in police when she deals with parents who are undocumented— “there’s a culture of not reporting” crimes to the police, she says. Still, she’s also seen a marked improvement in how Forest Park police have been involved in the Hispanic community, through attending school fairs and a summer program for teens.

 

Forest Park Police Sgt. Brittney Sparks has been with the department for six years and says officers now have more discretion to decide whether to issue citations or not—though there’s still an imperative to enforce state law when encountering unlicensed drivers. “If there’s an accident, and you don’t have any type of identification, how am I going to contact your family, go by your house, get in touch with the next of kin?” Sparks says. “It’s not a one-time fix as it [would be if] you have someone that’s driving without a seatbelt.”

 

For Fabre, the simple decrease in traffic stops has solved many problems for his community. Clark and Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler met with parishioners just before the pandemic began, listening once more to how traffic stops were hurting their community. Fabre says Clark promised there wouldn’t be traffic stops or checkpoints near San Felipe on Sundays anymore—and Fabre is happy to say that’s been true.

MAP: FPPD Citations issued for Driving While Unlicensed or Expired, 2019-2021

JOANA IBARRA, A YOUNG Forest Park native who owns smoothie bar Fit Nutrition 4U, just outside the city limits, grew up around immigrants without legal status or driver’s licenses. She says police were often making stops for minor traffic violations, and remembers that a neighbor, who used local taxis for small trips but sometimes could not avoid driving, recently moved away from Forest Park, back to Mexico. Ibarra says, “She was just terrified to get stopped and locked up again, because she had experienced that so many times.”

 

Those experiences mean it’s still difficult for her and other Hispanic community members to create a positive relationship with Forest Park police, despite changed leadership and a drastic shift in policy. But Forest Park has other new leaders to mediate the relationship.

 

The same year Clark was hired, Forest Park elected Hector Gutierrez, the city’s first Hispanic city council member. Beyond proclamations and events like the city’s first Hispanic Heritage Month Festival, he has worked with police to encourage recruitment of Spanish-speaking officers and to make Forest Park more welcoming to his community. He places a great deal of faith in Clark’s leadership of the police department: “The pressure’s not on the officer to just bring in something,” like before, he says, noting that the city now focuses more attention on accountability for police, including newly acquired body cameras. But he still encounters plenty of resistance from the community. 

 

“I’m always having to resell our police chief and resell our police department,” Gutierrez says. 

Forest Park native Joana Ibarra, who owns a local smoothie bar, has recently seen a difference in how local law enforcement polices Forest Park—and improvements in how police relate to the local Hispanic communities.

Without meaningful change at the state or national level, however, Forest Park police may always have to resell themselves to the Hispanic and undocumented communities. That reselling is also related to recruiting Hispanic officers: with the change in leadership, and with recruitment issues nationwide, Forest Park’s 100-person police force is operating at 20 officers below capacity. Six years ago, the department was mostly white. Now, the majority of officers are Black, but there are only a couple of Spanish speakers and Latinx officers. Sergeant Sparks says many officers go through de-escalation training that teaches them to use pen and paper, or Google Translate on a phone, to communicate with Spanish-only speakers. While the department has been actively looking for Hispanic candidates, the difficulty in recruiting stems directly from the previous traffic stop policy: when police previously would ask Fabre for help recruiting officers from the Hispanic community, he wasn’t interested in helping. “I couldn’t tell people to go somewhere where they are going to use them against their own,” he says. But under Clark’s tenure, he’s willing to help.

 

Montes, who runs the local beauty salon, is optimistic that immigrants without legal status—and the mostly Hispanic businesses they support—will stay in Forest Park. She says she has more clients now—Oh, my God, it’s different now! they say—and she sees signs of new businesses. The stylists who work at her beauty shop now feel confident to drive to work, too, she says. “They used to say, I don’t want to work in Forest Park; now, they’re asking to rent houses in the area.”

 

But for many, Forest Park’s reputation outlives the new changes. Pelayo moved to Lawrenceville a couple of years ago, and says, “I just don’t ever want to come back” to Forest Park. She’d consider it more if she saw more representatives of the Hispanic community in different city departments, but she fears there’s always a chance “to go back to those times” with more aggressive traffic stops.

 

Ibarra says trusting that Forest Park will stay hospitable might be harder for people in her parents’ generation, whose prior experiences with police have “just taught them to be a little more careful or cautious.” Her parents still instinctively text her whenever they see police cars, she says: There’s a traffic stop that way. Don’t go over there. But, over the last two years, she’s noticed a difference. For the first time, she knows police officers by name: there’s a Hispanic officer who went to school with her; another is a client of hers. 

 

“Knowing these people, and them being Brown and Black people, you get to relate to them a little more in this community.”

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