Mo. police program reaches out to Hispanics
By Andale Gross
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While departments across the country are making illegal immigrant arrests a larger part of their daily duties, police in Kansas City are leaving the citizenship busts to federal agents and focusing instead on community policing efforts in the city's growing Hispanic communities.
The Kansas City Police Department is doing it by expanding its Spanish immersion program, created last year to soften its reputation in the city's Hispanic communities. Through hands-on time in the community, officers learn Spanish, volunteer at neighborhood schools, focus on Hispanic culture and interact with community leaders.
"I think it's one of the most important things I've done since being with the department," said Megan Laffoon, an officer for nearly three years and one of the first to finish the department's Spanish language and culture program. "I don't think you can fully serve a community if you can't speak their language."
The program is in just its second year, and hard evidence of it's effect remains largely anecdotal. But advocates cite numerous examples in which the emerging trust between Hispanics and police has helped with investigations.
Laffoon recalls putting her skills to work late last year when she heard a call on her police radio about a Latino man who had been shot. She rushed to the scene to help other officers interpret what the victim was saying. The man calmed enough to describe the suspects, who were arrested blocks away.
"Essentially, all people care about are their families and where they live, and they want to make it a safer place," said Chato Villalobos, an officer who has helped shape the Spanish immersion program. "And we have to develop that trust."
Kansas City's program appears to be thriving at a time when law enforcers in states such as California and Arizona are trying to help the Department of Homeland Security find illegal immigrants and hand them over for deportation.
Earlier this month, 10 troopers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol completed special immigration training that allows them to start enforcing federal immigration laws in the state. Six troopers - two each from Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis - will be used to speed up processing after traffic stops, and the other four will be assigned to casinos in Kansas City and St. Louis.
National Council of La Raza officials say they sometimes get reports about police cracking down on immigrants. Officers, La Raza says, often are reacting to pressure from lawmakers.
"We're living in times where people in Hispanic communities - and especially immigrant communities - are fearful of local police," said Cecilia MuÃ±oz, the National Council of La Raza's senior vice president for policy. "Deliberate efforts to get to know these communities and address their fears are needed, so that people feel connected and feel comfortable coming forward when they've been victims of crimes or witnesses to them."
In Kansas City at least, officers are eager to coexist, rather than confront, local Latinos.
Hispanics made up 8.7 percent of Kansas City's 432,773 residents in 2006, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. They made up 6.9 percent of the city's population in 2000.
Nearly 4 percent of the city's police officers are Hispanic, but not all are Spanish-speaking and the department has struggled to recruit officers who can speak the language.
About 2 percent of the department's 1,429 total officers are proficient enough in Spanish to receive bilingual pay, according to police records.
About 40 officers can now speak at least some Spanish because of the immersion program, which the department funds. Officer Lynda Hacker, the program coordinator, said that during the first year in 2007, it focused just on officers learning the language. This year, the 10-week program expanded, putting officers in the community for more days at a time to absorb the culture and interact with residents.
Clashes between Hispanics and Kansas City police have often been cultural. Hispanic immigrants used to be labeled as uncooperative for not looking police in the eye, but in some cultures it's disrespectful to make direct eye contact with authority figures. Latinos were often busted for drinking openly in public, which is allowed in their home countries but will get them arrested on U.S. streets.
Villalobos, an officer for nine years and a product of Kansas City's Hispanic neighborhoods, said he grew up not liking cops.
"That's what you learned," said the 36-year-old Mexican-American, who was 3 when his illegal immigrant parents moved the family from Los Angeles to Kansas City.
Now, he's proud to belong to a movement built around strengthening police and Hispanic community relations.
Dressed casually with his badge clipped to his jeans, he easily fits in at the community center where he and another officer share a police office. Groups of Hispanic men gather outside the center most mornings waiting for prospective employers to pull up in their trucks.
The day laborers used to congregate in a nearby liquor store parking lot. But residents complained about public drunkenness, and some workers were being robbed by people posing as laborers.
"We maintain order, but they've learned to self-police," Villalobos said of the arrangement that the workers and officers have now. "They realize they have the power to dictate whether they're going to be victimized.
"They become like deputies for us."
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