By Leef Smith, The Washington Post
Arlington's Gates of Ballston apartment complex has a new resident: the police.
The county's first community policing center - in a two-bedroom apartment on North Third Road - moved in Dec. 1. The goal: to improve communication between law enforcement and Buckingham residents, some of whom are illegal immigrants and harbor a fear of police and deportation.
That fear was highlighted in the spring when police invited members of the Latino community to attend a 12-week Citizens' Academy to learn more about the department. However, some who applied for the seminar were turned away because the class filled quickly, and there was not enough time to provide background checks for would-be participants who did not have Social Security numbers, officials said.
Community members were confused and angry. Looking back, police said the breakdown in communication was just one more reason they decided to embed officers in the community to improve relations.
"People expressed that they didn't feel comfortable reporting to the police or [going] down to the police station either to contest a parking ticket or pick up a car that had been towed," said Arlington police spokesman Matt Martin. "The reasons for that lack of comfort are innumerable. Some residents are recent immigrants, and the countries they came from didn't have police forces that were trustworthy. Or perhaps [they fear] we'd turn them in to" immigration enforcement.
If the program is successful - the county has a no-cost, one-year lease at 4117 N. Third Rd., Apartment 2 - police officials believe they can improve trust and ease the delivery of police services, whether taking a crime report, registering a bicycle or dispensing crime prevention tips.
Officials say they're taking these steps to improve communication, but they conceded that none of the officers assigned to the center speaks Spanish.
That came as a surprise to Arlington County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). "It seems like we'd want to have Spanish-speaking officers there," Favola said, adding that she planned to look into the matter. "That seems a little counterintuitive."
If issues requiring translation arise, Martin said the police will call on other officers for help or direct residents to information provided online in Spanish.
Vladimir Sanchez, the lead volunteer with the Buckingham Community Outreach Center, said residents have long advocated a better relationship with the police, hoping in part that officers will provide classes on safety and help them collect payments from employers who take advantage of workers' immigrant status.
"The undocumented immigrants are the main targets of crime," said Sanchez, through an interpreter. "They don't report the crimes because they're afraid. If they know the police by name, they'll be more likely to report and more likely to approach the police to talk about community problems."
Martin said officers will not be there to serve as a collection agency but will investigate police matters and try to help residents get the assistance they need. "We're not a panacea for every ill," Martin said. "But we can point them in the right direction."
The team -- five officers and a sergeant -- will rotate in and out of the office, making two or three visits a week, officials said. They won't be there round-the-clock but will stop in periodically, file reports and create a presence.
"Instead of being a hard-to-know group of people who only come in when something horrible happens, they'll be seen on a daily basis, and that will breed comfort," Martin said.
Buckingham residents are already looking to the future, lobbying the police to hold a Citizens' Academy in Spanish. They say 25 people have signed up. Martin said police are hoping to provide a spring session in Spanish.