Editorial: Spanish-speaking cops would help fight crime in town

12/07/2012 10:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead police speaking to a Hispanic bicyclist on West Main Street in downtown Riverhead in 2009.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead police speaking to a Hispanic bicyclist on West Main Street in downtown Riverhead in 2009.

Lost in much of the recent discussion about how to bridge the divide between the Riverhead Police Department and the town’s Hispanic community is the actual goal. Readers have bemoaned a society that bends over backward to help undocumented immigrants. But let’s be clear: That’s not what police experts and officials are advocating.

The goal is not to cater to minorities but to be a more effective police force. Investigations in Hispanic neighborhoods, experts say, could be greatly aided by officers who can communicate with the people who live and work there.

Imagine a scenario in which a Hispanic woman wishes to report a crime but can’t explain the situation quickly or clearly enough to a responding officer. This scenario is not purely hypothetical. In the town police department today you can see Hispanics struggle to communicate with police, and vice versa. You can also see officers frustrated by a language barrier that prevents them from doing the best job they can and want to do.

Experts and officials say the town would be better served, and safer, if such lines of communication could be opened. Residents could communicate effectively with officers to alert them to dangerous people in the community or tip them off to potential crimes before they happen. And officers would have the added opportunity to develop sources within those communities that could prove invaluable in catching criminals.

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Current popular police theory holds that departments should reflect their community. Nowhere is this better seen than in the New York Police Department, which includes hundreds of minority officers — more than half the force now — who are able to connect and forge relationships with minority neighborhoods.

According to 2010 census data, nearly 14 percent of Riverhead town is Hispanic, a major jump of more than 77 percent from 10 years earlier. And that data does not include those who didn’t volunteer information for the census. There is no way of knowing how many of those Hispanic residents speak only Spanish, but the Hispanic population is growing and slowly integrating.

Our immigrant population boom is just beginning, and that integration won’t happen overnight. But Riverhead’s public schools already include a higher percentage of minorities than is found in the general population, signifying that population shift. There are dozens of English as a Second Language classes in our public schools, libraries and churches, with hundreds of students.

Yet some people seem convinced that, unlike immigrants past, from Germans and Irish to Italians and Poles, this generation of immigrants refuses to assimilate and will not learn English. The critics fail to see that real integration takes time and that, until it does happen, it’s dangerous to ignore a growing population.

Having people who are able to connect with the Hispanic population, experts say, opens up a wealth of knowledge for police officers to pull from. It’s these bonds between diverse areas and police officers that make the whole community safer, not just minority neighborhoods.

No one — not experts or town officials or police administrators — is suggesting the town hire less competent officers. The latest police recruits hired Tuesday are, by all accounts, upstanding and exemplary.

But just as some value a university cop’s experience on the job, others value language skills.

That’s one reason the Suffolk County Police and police departments across the country are now seeking more Spanish-speaking officers. Fluency in a language spoken by an underserved population is a valuable skill, just like a war hero’s skills acquired in battle, and not in any way a crutch.

SPECIAL REPORT, FEB 10: In diverse area, Riverhead police force remains overwhelmingly white

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