Zebulon, N.C. — Three civil rights groups say police in Zebulon are targeting members of a Latino church outside town at traffic checkpoints.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have asked for records of traffic stops from Zebulon police and the Wake County Sheriff's Office dating back to 2006. They say they suspect racial profiling is at work.
“That’s causing a sort of chilling effect on people's ability to attend church,” said Jeff Shaw, communications director for the North Carolina Justice Center, a Raleigh think tank.
The groups say members of Iglesia de Dios "Catedral de Jesus" have complained that checkpoints have been going on during church services for months. White and black drivers are usually waved through the checkpoints, which focus on Latino drivers, witnesses told the groups.
“We’ve been using this particular location long before that church was ever built there. It’s just the best location,” Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said.
Matheny said Saturday that a lot of checkpoints have been set up a quarter-mile from the church because the area draws a significant amount of traffic.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he is not even sure if his deputies ever assisted Zebulon police at that location.
“But if we were out there, it was legal,” Harrison continued.
Both Harrison and Matheny said the goal at checkpoints is to make sure people who are impaired or don't have a license aren't on the road. However, for the members of the church, they say it seems like harassment.
“You can make all the excuses and justifications for it that you like,” Shaw said.
“I mean, are we supposed to not check for a driver's license? That’s our job to keep the people of Wake County safe,” Harrison said.
The groups also accused law enforcement of interrupting church services to "harass members of the congregation seeking information." Church attendance has declined as a result of the moves, officials said.
“They are scared, very scared,” Iglesia de Dios minister Francisco Hernandez said.
Zebulon Police Chief Tim Hayworth was out of town and unavailable for comment Saturday. Matheny said he will meet with Hayworth and other town leaders on Monday to discuss the matter.