VAIL — Members of local law enforcement have been doing some extra duty lately — running coat drives, shopping with kids and playing pick-up basketball at the local elementary school.
These efforts from behind the badge are aimed at fostering trust between police and the immigrant community — a group that has become a large portion of the local population. According to the 2010 census, about 30 percent of Eagle County’s population is Hispanic/Latino, and 20 percent are immigrants.
“I had this feeling in a lot of our conversations that there was some mistrust of individual officers and agencies, and I felt with a quarter of our population being Hispanic that we could provide a better means of communication,” said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.
The solution came in 2010 with an idea from local members of Catholic Charities — the nonprofit helped form an advisory committee that was plugged into the immigrant community. The members of the Eagle County Law Enforcement Advisory Committee were people who both had connections and good rapport with the immigrant community. It included people from Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, the school district, county services and law enforcement. The idea: Change misconceptions about the police among immigrants, build trust and encourage victims to report crime.
The program also provided a force of volunteer interpreters, who help law enforcement at the scene of a call or at the police station when they need translation services. Currently, there are trained interpreters for Spanish, French and Russian. And just as importantly, in more subtle ways, the program educated immigrants on their rights and encouraged them to turn to police when needed.
“A lot of misconceptions had to do with legal status and reporting a crime,” said Marian McDonough, a regional director of Catholic Charities. “There was the idea that if you’re here illegally and you report a crime you’ll immediately be turned over to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and set up for deportation.”
She said that as a result, a lot of crime went unreported, and perpetrators went unpunished.
“Another factor is that many of the people who are coming from other countries are coming from very corrupt law enforcement agencies,” McDonough said. “It’s breaking down that misperception of what law enforcement is in the U.S. — it’s a service as well as enforcement of the law. Here, it’s a helping agency, too.”
Now, nearly three years later, the efforts are paying off.
Since the program began, more people from the Hispanic community are reporting crime. Also, the percentage of Hispanics arrested as compared to the total population has decreased steadily from 41.9 percent in 2010 to 33.1 percent in 2012. The percentage of Hispanics victimized by a crime increased from 22.2 percent in 2009 to 24.6 percent in 2011, and then decreased to 19.4 percent in 2012.
Those might seem like contradictory trends, given the goals of the program. However, Henninger and Avon Police Chief Bob Ticer explained that more policing efforts result in more reports of crime, which in turn deters people from committing crimes.
“I would definitely say that decrease in victimization is the result of a better informed community, and potential perpetrators know there might be consequences, so they might think twice before committing the crime,” Henninger said.
Ticer said that in Avon, there’s a dramatic difference as a result of increased and positive interaction with the immigrant community.
“I see a complete difference in our entire community,” he said. “We’ve seen crime and traffic incidents plummet in town just from having our officers out there and interacting. When you’re proactive, you reduce crime.”
The program has been so successful, in fact, that the International Association of Chiefs of Police recognized the program with two awards. The first honor was the prestigious IACP Civil Rights award, and the second was as a finalist in the Community Policing category.
Connecting the community
The program showed its value soon after it began in 2010, when the arrests of several Latino men at the Strawberry Daze festival in Glenwood Springs set off alarms among the immigrant community. Rumors spread that the results were part of a roundup and that authorities were using public events as a way to find illegal immigrants.
According to authorities, the arrests were not related to legal status, but the people arrested were all known gang members, and police had warrants for their arrest.
Through advisory board members, police heard about the rumors. To quell the fears, those advisory board members went back into the community with the facts and worked to educate the community of their rights when it came to when and where they could be asked for identification and how ICE conducts its work.
“I think it alleviated a lot of fears,” McDonough said.
Meanwhile, a number of successful goodwill programs continue. In Avon, Kids, Cops and Hoops draws upwards of 20 kids every Monday night to play basketball with police officers. Ticer also said that the police department’s Citizens Police Academy, a six-week course in which residents learn how local law enforcement works, had its first Spanish language course. Ticer said 16 people graduated from that class.
Whatever your thoughts on immigration, advisory members said the program results in an overall safer environment that benefits the entire community.
Vail Mayor Andy Daly said the program and the national recognition it’s received “recognizes the role of the immigrant community to our long-term success.”
Daly added he’s proud of the way immigrants and police have “come together in such an effective way that’s become a model for other agencies.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at email@example.com.