Like a rickety wooden roller coaster, the relationship between Chattanooga's Latino community and police has highs and lows — times of trust and mistrust — and the last few years have been a low, community members say.
The Chattanooga Police Department once hosted programs focused on educating the local Latino community, but those haven't happened for years, said Stacy Johnson, executive director at La Paz, a nonprofit that advocates for the local Latino community. Only eight of the department's 470 sworn personnel are certified as Spanish interpreters and, as of late last year, there were only 13 Hispanic police officers.
During the past four years, the tentative trust between police and Latinos eroded while crime against Hispanics and Latinos in Hamilton County rose — up 22 percent in 2013 from 2012, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
"In between has left the Latino community voiceless," Johnson said. "When they call 911 or when they call for help, a lot of times there are not interpreters, no one who can understand what they're saying. That becomes a big barrier for the Latino population and reaching out to police."
It's a problem the department is aiming to fix with a slew of new initiatives and programs aimed at re-establishing a comfortable rapport between Chattanooga's growing population of Spanish speakers and the department's predominantly white and black officers.
The initiatives are part of Chief Fred Fletcher's overall plan to increase community-first-style policing in Chattanooga. But to develop those positive relationships with the Latino community — whose size tripled in Chattanooga between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — police have to push through extra cultural barriers.
Often, Latinos are hesitant to report crimes, either because they are in the country illegally or because they're afraid of police corruption. Lesly Vicente, co-owner of Tienda Quetzal on 23rd Street, said corruption was common among police in Guatemala, where she lived before moving to the United States 11 years ago.
She and her husband have operated their store for six years. In late 2012, three masked robbers burst in the door — one waving a silver handgun — and stole all the cash in the store.
Vicente called police, and they arrived with one officer who could speak a little Spanish, she said.
"They came, they did their job, and they left," she said.
That simple interaction helped grow her confidence in police.
"Because we went through something with them," she said. Although, she adds, she still hasn't figured out whether police ever caught the robbers.
Fear of police is a common barrier, Johnson said.
"They're afraid to call, or they're not sure of the process," she said.
That's one reason why she thinks the department's Spanish-language citizens' police academy can help bridge the gap between police and community members. Officer Harold Diaz is reinstating the program — an eight-week course that gives participants a comprehensive explanation of how the police force works — this fall.
"We're trying to help everyone realize that this is not policing in Guatemala, in Puerto Rico, and we want everyone to feel safe," Fletcher said. "Regardless of their first or current language."
The department will also offer free Spanish-language refresher courses to employees starting in mid-September, Fletcher said. Currently, if an officer who doesn't speak Spanish needs to communicate with a Spanish speaker for a formal report, that officer calls one of the department's eight interpreters and they head to the scene from wherever they are.
Witness statements and reports must be taken by a certified interpreter in order to be used in court. Officers who speak Spanish but aren't certified can interact with citizens — say, to give directions — but can't complete any official paperwork. The department doesn't track the number of officers who speak Spanish, Fletcher said.
The department is also working with Chattanooga State Community College to launch a program called RISE — Refugee Immigrant Safety Education — to especially equip and educate refugees and immigrants. And Fletcher has created an immersion program that asks cadets to carefully study minority communities.
"Every single [initiative] is about learning to appreciate the culture," Fletcher said, adding that the programs are focused on non-Spanish-speaking officers.
"I don't need to send Officer Diaz to these. I need to send someone who grew up in East Tennessee who may never have had a friend or acquaintance who speaks Spanish as their first language. Those are the people who need to learn about the community."
Beatrice Sarmiento, owner of Taqueria y Fonda La Bonita on Central Avenue, said she's starting to see changes at the street level. When a pair of men attempted to break into her restaurant a few weeks ago, police responded immediately and stopped the would-be burglars.
"There's always been a lot of robberies, but now there are more police and patrols out there," she said. "We feel safer here now."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or [email protected] with tips or story ideas.