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The Associated Press

Spanish-Speaking Victim Advocate Joins North Charleston Police Force


May 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Growing up in the hard-edged housing projects of New York City's South Bronx, Miriam Walker grew used to the sound of gunfire crackling through the night and the fear that someone was hurting out there in the dark.

These days, Walker spends her time wading into that darkness to help a segment of North Charleston's population that has long suffered in silence from the effects of violent crime.

As the North Charleston Police Department's first and only bilingual victim advocate, the 45-year-old native of Puerto Rico will concentrate her efforts on helping Hispanic residents, who have become prime targets for robbers and other criminals.

Hispanics accounted for 34 percent of North Charleston's 411 robbery victims last year. Two Hispanics were shot to death in the city in 2003, one by robbers and the other by an intruder who broke into his home and molested his wife.

"For over a year, I've been reading about the Hispanic community and how many robberies have been occurring in this area," said Walker, who started work April 26. "I wanted to be part of turning things around and helping them understand their legal rights."

Walker is one of four North Charleston advocates who work with victims of shootings, sexual assault, domestic abuse and other violent crimes to ensure they understand the legal process and get the help they need. The advocates update victims on their cases, accompany them to court dates, arrange transportation to doctor visits and help them apply for compensation for lost wages, medical care and other expenses.

Police hope Walker's hiring, along with other outreach efforts, will help bridge the language and cultural gaps that exist between the city's growing Hispanic population and the community at large. With at least 3,163 Hispanic residents, North Charleston has more than any other city in the state except Columbia and Hilton Head Island, according to the 2000 census.

Despite the threat of crime, many Hispanics have been hesitant to call police. Some don't speak English well or have harsh memories of corrupt police in their native countries. Others are undocumented workers who fear being deported. This, along with a propensity to keep their earnings close at hand, has made them easy targets for criminals. "They basically think that if they come in here they are going to be deported," Walker said. "It's a myth and a story that has been told on and on in the Hispanic community. I'm hoping I can dispel that myth."

Lisa Bullard, police director of victim assistance, said Walker's background, experience and established connections in the community will be an asset to the department. Before her arrival, North Charleston advocates had to depend on Spanish-speaking police officers and others to translate for them when dealing with Hispanic victims, she said.

Walker moved to the Charleston area in 1991 when her husband was stationed at the Charleston Navy Base. She worked for a local legal aid program for the poor but eventually decided her true calling was working closely with victims of abuse and crime.

"My mother was a victim of domestic violence, and I realized as I got older that was not the type of life for anyone to live," she said. "I always wanted to work with the community, and I thought maybe by talking to some women who were hurting that I might help them."

She took a job with People Against Rape, working for two years as a bilingual advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. During her time at PAR, Walker also volunteered her translation services on several occasions to help North Charleston police and the Charleston County jail assist crime victims.

"She's a dynamo, and we miss her very much," said Jeanne Krider, executive director of PAR. "She really has the heart that a victim advocate needs to help someone move from being a victim to being a survivor."

Walker hit the ground running. She already is working on eight cases, including assisting a Hispanic man who was stabbed and hacked with a machete April 30. Through her work on that case, she learned of three other crimes, including a robbery, that had gone unreported.

Walker recently helped a police detective who was interviewing a Hispanic girl who had become sexually involved with a 28-year-old man. She was just 12 years old. The girl relaxed and opened up her with her story when Walker began speaking with her in Spanish, Bullard said.

"My mother is like that," Walker said. "She has been here since she was 25, but she still prefers to speak Spanish. She knows English, and so does that little girl, but she feels more at ease expressing herself in her own language. We should not think any less of them because of that."

Police spokesman Spencer Pryor said Walker's hiring is part of the department's efforts to serve and protect the city's growing Hispanic population. Police have hired other Spanish-speaking personnel, distributed crime-prevention tips in Spanish, placed "Hablo Espanol" signs on cruisers with Spanish-speaking officers and made biweekly appearances on a local Spanish-language radio station to field calls from listeners.

"We're not stopping here," Pryor said. "We want to increase the presence of Hispanics in the department so we can mirror the community we serve."

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