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Casa By Casa, Police Work To Build Language Of Trust

Informal Meetings Seen as Start

By Sylvia Moreno

February 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

One very cold night last week, D.C. police officer Pedro Garcia took his job as a liaison to the District's burgeoning Latino community house to house.

It was night, and the two-story brick rowhouses on this far eastern edge of Columbia Heights were shut tight, barricaded behind berms of snow. But there he was, a big, thickset cop with his little homemade Spanish-language invitations to una reunión especial (a special meeting), knocking on doors and trying to reach people who may view police as brutal, corrupt and untrustworthy. That's back in their home countries in Central or South America. Here, the problem is compounded by the language barrier.

One woman stood in her housecoat behind the mesh grill and iron bars protecting her front entrance, eyeing Garcia warily as he stood on her dark porch.

"We're doing this to break down all these barriers between us," he said in Spanish, the same speech he used on other residents in a three-block area. "This is a great opportunity. Unfortunately, many times we try to fix relations between the police and Latinos and then Latinos don't show up. So please, try to come. I expect to see you there."

And there she was the next night, along with a dozen other Hispanic immigrants, at her neighbor's house, who hosted the meeting for Garcia and top officials of the 4th District.

The concept break the ice by using neighbors -- is simple, Garcia said, with the ultimate goal of gaining the trust of Hispanic residents.

"If they see they're bringing me into their house," he said, "they're going to have confidence I'm not going to do them wrong."

If the Mount Pleasant riots of May 1991 -- sparked by the shooting of a Salvadoran immigrant by a rookie D.C. police officer -- are but a distant memory for some Washingtonians, that incident remains a stubborn touchstone that haunts the Metropolitan Police Department.

"That was not about the shooting of Mr. [Daniel Enrique] Gomez. That riot was frustration, and you could see the frustration," said Cmdr. Cathy Lanier, who started her career as a rookie officer in Mount Pleasant the day after the riots broke She then went on to head the 4th District, which has jurisdiction over the diverse neighborhood, and today she commands MPD's Special Operations Division.

"That only builds when you have interactions with the police department who also has a lack of understanding of culture and language," she said. "It only takes a small incident to set that off."

In the intervening dozen years since the Mount Pleasant riots -- and several federal mandates and lawsuits later -- the police department continues to grapple with the task of how best to reach a community that doubled in size between 1990 and 2000 in the District and whose culture and language is largely not understood or is misunderstood by residents and government officials alike.

"There are many challenges, from hiring bilingual officers to breaking down tensions . . . to how to keep all our communities in the loop," said Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.

The department, officials agree, is facing a serious scarcity of bilingual officers and emergency call center operators. Investigations into whether the police killings of two unarmed Latino men, one in 1999 and the other 2001, were justified, have yet to be concluded. There is an active investigation into an allegation by a legal resident from Costa Rica who, in trying to report that he was mugged in December, was turned away from the 3rd District and told to go the Costa Rican Embassy for help.

And just last week, Ramsey said recent allegations by a Latino family that a lieutenant in the 4th District verbally harassed the father for not speaking English and threatened the children with arrest for translating for him have been "sustained." The case has been recommended for "adverse action," Ramsey said, and sent to the department's disciplinary review office for a determination.

"If we drop the ball on something, we need to fix it," Ramsey said at a community meeting last week in Adams Morgan. "You've got my commitment to do everything we can."

Various efforts to reach out to the community were discussed recently at a briefing by top officials, including Ramsey, Lanier and the commanders of the 3rd and 4th Districts, where a majority of Hispanics reside.

The department has 209 bilingual officers, 5.75 percent of the department's 3,633 sworn members. Of 813 civilian personnel, 17 are Hispanic, said Officer Michael Padin of the MPD recruiting office. The latest recruiting drive in Puerto Rico added 40 officers this year. They are about to graduate from the police academy. The department hopes to add 40 or 50 bilingual officers this year through recruitment drives in Puerto Rico and across the mid-Atlantic region, Padin said.

The Public Communications Call Center -- which handles 911 emergency calls and which Ramsey has said is seriously understaffed -- has six full-time bilingual employees and one bilingual supervisor, said Lt. Van Crawford. He said the office is funded for 15 bilingual call-takers but has not been able to fill the jobs.

Last year, a Latino Citizens Advisory Council was created in the 4th District, then headed by Lanier, to advise the commander on Latino issues and priorities. It has expanded to incorporate the 3rd District commander and residents and has developed a series of youth-violence prevention activities at Bell Multicultural High School.

Also proposed by Lanier and Ramsey was the creation of a Latino Liaison Unit, which was established last September in an office in the heart of Adams Morgan, at Columbia Road and 18th Streets NW. Hablamos Español is printed in block letters on the glass door.

However, the unit has been criticized by the Latino Civil Rights Project, a coalition of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and local and national Hispanic advocates. The civil rights project issued a report last year -- 11 years after the riots in Mount Pleasant -- that said Latinos in the District still face discrimination and civil rights violations. The report urged the appointment of a Latino Affairs ombudsman who would work directly for the chief and report to the public at monthly forums.

The Latino Liaison Unit, project members say, is internal to the MPD, is charged with day-to-day operations and is not involved in data collection or analysis. Ramsey, in turn, has appointed Enrique Rivera, a seven-year civilian department employee, as his coordinator for issues involving Hispanic officers and the Latino community.

The liaison unit -- a sergeant, one detective and four officers who are all Hispanic and bilingual -- have citywide duties that have taken them across the District's eight wards as translators for fellow officers. A detective and two more officers are about to be added to the unit.

Some of their work has been traditional: translating; taking crime and missing-person reports from Spanish-speakers; and conducting safety and emergency preparedness seminars. But some has been unconventional.

Using La Mega-92.7, a popular Spanish-language FM radio station, the officers broadcast a plea to the Latino community to donate money for the funeral expenses of a young girl who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Silver Spring and whose family could not afford a burial. Another radio program centered on a Latino victim of a robbery in the District -- a crime that was reported by an uninvolved witness to police but not by the woman. She stepped forward after hearing the officer on the air.

Now the unit has started the home visits program, small meetings held at night in a living room with neighbors and 3rd or 4th District officials, as well as an officer from the Latino Liaison Unit. A half-dozen have been held so far in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

"We need to do something new, something more personal," Garcia said. "Latino people like to sit down, have a cup of coffee. We understand there's a lot of fear, and there's a lot of things police officers don't understand about their fears."

Garcia moderated the meeting last week at the home of Ubaldo and Lucia Montero, Mexican immigrants who live with their extended family. Also in attendance was 4th District Cmdr. Larry D. McCoy, Sgt. Gerard Burke and the block's two patrol officers. Ramsey said he hopes this groundwork will lead to a well-attended town hall meeting with Latino residents around May 5, the anniversary of the Mount Pleasant riots. Up for discussion were questions like "What is the general function of the Metropolitan Police Department?"; "What is its function in relation to immigration issues?"; "What should residents do if they are detained by police?"; "What should you do if you need police help and you don't speak English?"; and "How can the police department reach out to the Latino community to build a high level of trust?"

And to that last question, Ubaldo Montero said this was a good start.

"This is good we're having these discussions," he said. "But let's not wait another 10 years to hold one."

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