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Cox News Service

Police Say Latinos Often Have Misconceptions

By J. Eric Eckard, Rocky Mount Telegram

28 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Cox News Service. All rights reserved. 

Crimes involving Hispanics – either as victims or suspects – are hard to track in the Twin Counties because of a lack of trust, experts say.

"Many police agencies in Central and South America are corrupt," said Rocky Mount police Officer B. Medina.

Medina is one of two Rocky Mount officers fluent in Spanish, who are tasked to translate conversations between Hispanics in the city and other officers. Medina's mother is from Guatemala, and his father is from Puerto Rico.

Medina said that in addition to the misconception that all police are dishonest, another obstacle in dealing with Hispanics is their immigration status.

"Some Hispanics will not call the police because they're here illegally," he added.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported there were more than 4,000 Latinos living legally in Nash and Edgecombe counties. Medina said he believed there are many more Hispanics in the Twin Counties illegally. Estimates of illegal Hispanics in America range from 7 million to 10 million.

A 2000 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service report showed that there were an estimated 206,000 illegal aliens in North Carolina, the state with the ninth-highest total of unauthorized residents in the United States. That number was up dramatically from 1990 when the INS said there were 26,000 illegals in North Carolina.

The study also showed that nearly all of the illegal immigrants in North Carolina in 2000 came from a Central or South American country.

Rocky Mount police Capt. John Manley said the Hispanics' immigration status is one of several factors that affect Latinos' acclimation into mainstream society.

"The under-reporting of crimes is caused by their lack of legal citizenship," Manley said. "The communication barrier and the cultural differences also create a lack of trust with law enforcement. They just don't trust us.

"There's not a lot they're going to open up and tell us things because they don't think we can protect them from retaliation."

Because of this blockade between Hispanics and law enforcement that's primarily non-Hispanic in Nash and Edgecombe counties, it's hard to trace Hispanic-related crimes. Police agencies do not track offenses or victims based on Hispanic heritage, so there are no official crime statistics from the state.

"If they call as a complainant, it's hard for them to understand us," said Nash County Sheriff Jimmy Grimes. "It's hard to talk to them, and it's hard for them to talk to us. This leads to so many under-reported crimes.

"If they do report a crime, they're not telling us everything. They're not giving us all the information to help us solve the crimes."

Edgecombe County Sheriff James Knight said he sees the same level of crime reporting and arrests related to Hispanics.

"Very rarely do we have incidents with them unless it's a revoked license or DWI," Knight said. "Very rarely do we have assaults or anything like that going on with them. They're mostly driving violations – no insurance, fictitious tags, things like that, which does not cause for a long-term incarceration."

Manley said he believes Hispanic gangs are trying to organize in some of the local high schools.

"We're seeing an increase in gang activity," he added. "They're trying to organize, and we're going through, trying to disorganize them.

"But this is like other (non-Hispanic) gangs that are trying to organize more formally. We believe all of them are possibly trying to organize at schools more formally."

The police agencies in the area have a few Spanish-speaking officers, but not many. Medina said he gets at least one call a day for help with translations. Some he can do by phone, others he has to deploy to a scene, he said.

The 911 communications centers have language lines, which can translate for victims who call for help and can't speak English. For Spanish-speaking suspects, there are other options.

"We have some lawyers and a couple of other people in our community on standby for emergencies in case we have a situation out at a scene that we are able to get in contact with, and then they'll do the interpreting for us," Knight said.

Nash County has one Spanish-speaking officer, but Grimes said, he wants more. The department has trained some of the officers to speak a little Spanish, and all of the patrol deputies carry an English/Spanish dictionary.

"It's helped," Grimes said of the dictionary. "But when you're talking in depth about a crime, a book doesn't help."

Manley said his department is constantly sending officers to cultural diversity seminars, but more needs to be done.

"We have to create stronger liaisons with the Hispanic community," Manley said. "They may not feel like they're wanted here."

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