The Eden Park apartments on Zane Avenue in Brooklyn Park was one of the apartment complexes affected in a string of burglaries targeting Latino families. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When two Brooklyn Park residents returned to their apartment on Zane Avenue in October 2019, they found an open front door and a broken bedroom window. Some $200 of old American currency, which they’d decoratively pinned to a wall, was gone, along with a safe containing $1,500, jewelry, a Social Security card and residency documents.

Now, police say the burglary was one of 20 in the south Brooklyn Park area that specifically targeted Latino families, from December 2018 throughout the next year. A complaint warrant filed July 29 in Hennepin County court charges three people for their involvement in the string of burglaries. 

Jonte Jamel Yates, 31, has been charged with six counts of first and second degree burglary. Back in February, Yates pleaded guilty in just two of the 20 cases, including the incident on Zane Avenue. Montriele Maurice Jackson, 31, and Jamaal Rashad Rice, 41, have also been charged in connection with the string of burglaries. 

Yates was released after his questioning in February, but police have now gathered enough evidence to charge him for multiple burglaries. While all three suspects have been charged by warrant, no arrests have been made yet.

In a statement Yates gave to officers in February, he said, “Mexicans don’t want to call the police so most of the time the burglaries go unreported.”

The Brooklyn Park burglaries illuminate the fear Latino residents across the country experience when they are victims of a crime. On one hand, undocumented victims may hesitate to alert law enforcement for fear they may end up disclosing their immigration status. On the other hand, if the police are not alerted, the crimes may continue. 

The three burglars charged for their involvement in the Brooklyn Park burglaries apparently found a way to capitalize on that fear.

According to a study from the journal Criminology last year, as the number of immigrants in an area increases, the likelihood plummets that a victim will report a crime to police. For example, in a place like Brooklyn Park, where 23 percent of the population is foreign-born, victims may report a crime just half of the time. The Pew Research Center reported that only half of Hispanic respondents say police officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally.

Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, often have concerns that police calls could lead to questions about immigration status. The Brooklyn Park Police say that they do not inquire about immigration status. But the former Hennepin County sheriff, Rich Stanek,  cooperated with ICE, turning over the names of individuals who landed in custody. However, the current sheriff Dave Hutchison has pledged not to turn over names to ICE. 

Confused? So, it would seem, are immigrant crime victims in the Twin Cities.

Hispanic families become targets

A spokesperson for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Chuck Laszewski, said that while he doesn’t think the targeting of Latino families in burglaries is common, it has happened before.

In September 2019, Robert Buckingham, 33, was charged with burglary and aggravated robbery. According to the complaints filed against Buckingham, the Minneapolis man broke into a Minneapolis home, tied up a teenager, ransacked the residence and stole a large amount of cash. 

While Buckingham did not admit to targeting Latino families, Laszewski said they’re assuming that was his motive: In a total of three incidents reported by police, all his victims were Latino.

“You can’t prove a negative,” Laszewski said. That is, if fear keeps a victim from reporting a crime, there’s no record of their victimization to begin with. “But it is logical to assume that there have been other cases of people being robbed, either as a burglary or an on-the-street robbery.” 

Laszewski added that it’s possible those victims were selected because the suspect thought  they might not report the crime. By filing the complaints, Laszewski added, the police hope that more victims may come forward. 

‘We’re not going to talk about immigration status with you’

Fear and hesitancy about approaching the police may have played out in Brooklyn Park, according to deputy chief Mark Bruley. At first, a number of Latino families did not come forward to report a burglary. One victim told detectives that a neighbor’s apartment had been broken into four times. Those incidents had not been reported yet.

After noticing a trend, the detectives working the case decided to hold a crime alert meeting for south Brooklyn Park’s Latino community. The police hoped to get the message out about the crime. Just as important, the police wanted to explain its policy around crime victims and immigration.

“We’re not going to talk about immigration status with you,” Bruley recounted telling the meeting participants. “That’s not our role. We’re not the federal police, we’re the local police. You will be treated as a victim and there will be no action taken about anything related to immigration status. We won’t ask.”

Bruley also said a lot of the victims, and their apartment complexes, were targeted because the burglars knew they weren’t likely to use banks. Workers concerned about their immigration status would be more likely to get paid in cash and then carry it home. The Brooklyn Park community outreach officer and civilian liaison staff started posting flyers at these apartment complexes, leading up to the meeting.

“It’s pretty ironic that you have a meeting and then that the following week we have multiple people reporting being a victim of burglary and other crimes,” Bruley said. “We were able to instill some confidence in the community members down there.”

The accounts that emerged from the victims followed a pattern, as described in the warrant: “It appeared that the suspects were targeting Hispanic families that lived in apartment buildings, and the suspects gained entry to the apartments usually through a window or sliding door during daylight hours.” 

The suspects typically stole cash and jewelry. But the accused thieves stole some other items, like electronics, legal documents and, in one instance, a firearm. 

Along with Yates, Jackson has been charged with one conviction of second-degree burglary, while Rice has been charged for two counts of second-degree burglary.

A collaboration with law enforcement

According to the U.S. Census, Hispanic residents make up 7.3 percent of the population in Brooklyn Park. Overall, more than half the city’s residents come from non-white backgrounds. 

Brooklyn Park Police sergeant Ryan Hjelm described the area affected by the burglaries as  diverse and dense with apartment buildings. While the perpetrators assumed the victims would not alert authorities, those victims still reported a total of 20 burglaries to Brooklyn Park Police. 

“The reality is they were very collaborative with the officers, and very thankful,” Hjelm said.

Hjelm added that, when applicable, they also support applications for U visas, which allow crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement to stay in the United States. This can present immigrants with an additional incentive to report a crime.

“For the most part, in Brooklyn Park, we have a pretty good relationship with the Hispanic community,” Hjelm said.

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Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.