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The Washington Post

Reaching Out To Latino Community

In Bid for Better Relations, D.C. Police Open Liaison Office in Adams Morgan

By Sylvia Moreno

September 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey greeted the crowd with a buenas tardes yesterday and announced the opening of a Latino Liaison Unit in the heart of the city's original Latino neighborhood, Adams Morgan.

Modeled after the department's successful Asian Liaison Unit in Chinatown, the new Latino unit will be staffed with nine officers who are bilingual in Spanish and English and who trace their ancestry to Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

The team will work out of a new office at 1800 Columbia Rd. NW and will be open from 8 a.m. to midnight every day. But the unit's role is to serve Latino residents citywide, most of them in the Northwest Washington neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and the upper 14th Street corridor.

Ramsey said the unit was set up in response to several factors, including the rapid growth of the city's Hispanic population and past confrontations between Spanish-speaking immigrants and a mostly English-speaking, majority-African American police force.

"The Latino population continues to grow and to diversify the richness and character of our city," Ramsey said. "But unique problems in language and cultural barriers also have arisen."

He said the unit would help with crime prevention, investigation and victim assistance and would be a sounding board for Latino residents.

The hope, Ramsey said later, is that the liaison office will improve relations with a community that has been mistrustful of police because of immigrants' experiences in their home countries, their immigration status or an inability to communicate with English speakers.

Latino community advocates say that problems in police-community relations have led to clashes and undue use of force against residents and that those problems contributed to the 1991 disturbances in Mount Pleasant after a rookie African American officer shot a Salvadoran man.

"If you got solid relations, you can get through those problems," Ramsey said. "And if you don't, it can explode."

A report issued in May by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and a civil rights review panel of local and national Hispanic advocates called for such an office.

"It's a good initiative, but we need to see how it's going to work and what role it will play in policing the police," said Saul Solorzano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center and a member of the group that prepared the report.

The report concluded that 11 years after the Mount Pleasant disturbances, Hispanics in D.C. still face discrimination and violation of civil rights.

Solorzano said several contributors to the report have been meeting with Ramsey, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other city officials.

The new 300-square-foot office juts out from a SunTrust Bank branch, which has donated the space.

Its windows look out on the busy intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road and on a variety of businesses, including a Salvadoran bank branch, a Peruvian chicken restaurant called Granja de Oro, the North Sea Chinese Restaurant and a McDonald's that does as much business in Spanish as it does in English.

The SunTrust branch has a staff that is bilingual and a clientele that is 90 percent Hispanic immigrants. Guillermo Fuentes, vice president and branch manager, said he particularly welcomed the police unit.

Fuentes said the bank employees not only serve their customers' banking needs but also help with other problems. "We read letters for them; we serve as translators," he said. "We help them by doing deposit and withdrawal slips. You mention it, we do it."

Because of that relationship, customers also sometimes tell bank employees of crimes that they are hesitant to report to police, he said.

"This is really going to help the area here and take care of a lot of crime," Fuentes said. "A lot of people come with complaints in here: Their husbands beat them up, or somebody snatched their purse while they were waiting for the bus. . . . Now they have a place to go."

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