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Orlando Sentinel

Police Reach Out To Hispanics; Spanish-Language Class Explains Job Of Law Enforcement

By Walter Pacheco, Sentinel Staff Writer

April 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

The Police Department might not be everyone's idea of the coolest place to be, but Gabriel Diaz will spend the next 14 weeks chatting and riding with police officers as one of the newest recruits of the Orlando Police Department's first Hispanic Citizen Police Academy.

"I think this is a great way to learn about the Police Department, but also learn how to protect my family," said Diaz, a 37-year-old native of Puerto Rico.

The department launched the 14-week, all Spanish-language program April 16 to increase awareness in the Hispanic community.

Classes are from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays at the department building at 100 S. Hughey Ave.

Police officers will guide the 25-plus residents who registered for the course through several of the department's divisions such as the drug, homicide, gang and training units; criminal investigations, SWAT teams and hostage negotiations.

However, Orlando's Spanish-language civil academy is not the first of its kind in Central Florida. In 2002, the Kissimmee department launched its own Hispanic civil academy. Police officers said Orlando's burgeoning Hispanic community made the new program necessary.

"When I first came to Orlando, there were few Hispanics, and even fewer in the department," said Reinaldo Rivero, the Cuban-born assistant police chief. "Now, we have 85 Hispanic police officers. This is a great way for residents to see how we do our job."

More than 18 percent of Orlando's population is Hispanic, and many who recently settled in Orlando are unfamiliar with the Police Department.

"Many Hispanic residents don't know who to call or what to do in case of emergency. I think it's great that the Police Department is educating them," said Gabi Ortigoni, a spokesperson with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Orlando.

Recently, Ortigoni and the city helped organize a Neighborhood Watch meeting for the Hispanic community in the Engelwood area.

"People are very interested in protecting their neighborhoods and helping police officers better patrol the area," Ortigoni said.

Although safety plays a major part in joining the civil academy, some students such as Luis Mercedes, registered as a refresher course to prepare him for the police academy.

"This Spanish-language class will really help me to understand the officer's day-to-day duties. I was a forensic police officer in Puerto Rico for 12 years, and I'm taking English classes now, so I can enroll in the police academy," Mercedes said.

Although Police Chief Michael McCoy does not speak Spanish, he told the Hispanic residents how excited he is to offer the class.

"It's up to us to reach out to the community and have the community reach back," McCoy said. "We'll learn from each other and how we can do our jobs better."

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