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Hispanic teens accuse officers of harassment campaign

For the second time that night, Anjel Martinez and several teenage friends were getting pulled over late Wednesday by Pinellas County sheriff's deputies.

As they grabbed their identification cards, they noticed a friend, Juan Hernandez, and a young woman walking toward them. Deputies stopped Hernandez and demanded identification, the youths said.

One deputy told the girl to step away because "we got to take care of business," Hernandez said. The deputy grabbed Hernandez around the neck, threw him to the ground, kicked him in the groin and pushed his face into the hood of the car. Later other deputies slapped him, he said.

Hernandez was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest without violence. Several of the young men in the car were arrested on charges ranging from carrying a concealed weapon to assaulting a police officer.

Some 25 to 30 Hispanic teenagers and their parents said Friday the incident at Old Ridge and Ulmerton roads near Largo is part of a growing campaign by law enforcement officials to drive them from the area. In a meeting at Calvary Foursquare Church in St. Petersburg, the teenagers and their parents attempted to document harassment claims and set a course for settling their troubles with police and deputies.

"We want to know whether this behavior is standard police policy or is it the work of maverick officers who are out there harassing and at times taking the law into their own hands," said Louis Rodriguez, president of the Suncoast Hispanic Association. "It's really outrageous."

The teenagers said sheriff's deputies and police from Pinellas Park and Largo follow them around town, aim lights at the windows of their homes and frequently stop them for questioning.

Members of the group that met Friday at the church at 3900 Fifth Ave. N say they plan to meet with internal affairs investigators for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department next week, and they hope to meet with Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice.

Sheriff's spokesman Greg Tita said he is unfamiliar with the Hispanics' allegations. But he said deputies would not bother teenagers unless they were involved in crimes.

"We don't target anybody because of their heritage," he said. "That's somewhat of a ludicrous statement on their part. There would have to be some sort of criminal activity or some sort of suspicion or reasonable suspicion that they were up to no good."

But the teenagers and parents say the actions of deputies and police are part of a deliberate pattern to drive Hispanics out of the Largo area. What happened to Hernandez and Martinez is typical, they say.

The teenagers say they are friends, not gang members. They say they hang out together because of their common cultural bonds.

"They don't want Latins here," said Jessica Rodriguez, 17, whose parents came from Puerto Rico.