Like many other populous cities around the country, the city of Newport News, located in Virginia, confronts a variety of law enforcement and public safety issues. Approximately a four-hour drive from the nation’s capitol, Newport News is a city that finds it is dealing with a substantial proportion of immigrants, largely Hispanic, who don’t speak English and who are at a disadvantage of being victimized.
Street officers in the three precincts of the Newport News Police Department discovered that reports were not being made in home invasion cases, in situations where Hispanic victims had been robbed on the way home from work, or in stances where they had not put money in the bank. "A significant portion of the Hispanic and Latino countries don’t view their police departments as a positive influence and often are in fear of them. Their financial institutions are not stable, which also does not instill confidence with the government," said Sgt. Xavier Falero of the Newport News Police Department.
"In order to be a great police department we must learn about and adapt to all the culture in our city in order to effectively police them. Each culture, whether Hispanic, Latino, Asian, African American, European, etc. have customs and traditions and knowing them will help the police help," Falero said. In 2003, the Newport News Police Department began The Hispanic Victimization Project that’s currently referred to as The Hispanic Community Outreach Program.
Several Spanish-speaking officers began to host community meetings and visit churches. When they initially arrived in neighborhoods with the command bus, the community members were scared and thought a raid was occurring. Consequently, the police department switched methods and brought the public information van that has the appearance of a mobile office. "In a three-hour span, we had over 100 visitors in the van," Falero said.
Officers instructed the community on how to make reports and explained how police in the U.S. conduct themselves. Most of the questions asked of the officers by those in attendance concerned traffic laws and the requirements for vital documents. The Spanish-speaking officers also conducted numerous hours of foot patrols in an apartment complex that formed a partnership with the Newport News Police Department. The property manager and the police discussed pertinent environmental issues that included lighting, fence repairs, shrubs that needed to be trimmed, and other related issues that would reduce the potential for crime and victimization. Officers informed the Hispanic residents of area crime trends and provided them strategies to prevent criminal victimization.
Immediately following the implementation of this effort, there was a marked increase in crime reporting by Hispanics in the community, which exemplified the establishment of trust and a better relationship with the police. Pamphlets were developed and distributed that provided an explanation of laws and ordinances that explained cultural differences and pointed out that what could be deemed illegal in the U.S. might be legal in their countries of origin.
The greater visibility of officers in the community combined with the strengthening of ties and enhancement of trust levels caused some MS-13 gang members to leave the area or conceal their gang affiliation. Within a period of months following the implementation of these measures, the crime rate was significantly reduced.
There was, however, turnover in the community with some groups moving out and others moving in. When the newcomers arrived, they didn’t trust the police and, once again, members of the community weren’t reporting crimes. Not all of the immigrants were in the country illegally but, regardless of their status, most of them didn’t trust the police. Thus, in 2005, an eight-hour Spanish survival course was developed for police recruits. They learned keywords and phrases that enabled them to communicate enough information until an interpreter could arrive on scene.
Additionally, the police department developed a Hispanic advisory committee composed of community members who are not sworn officers as well as working group members including individuals from human services, the fire department, public schools, city planning, the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies that have a tie with the Hispanic community.
The committee meets the first Tuesday of the month. The mission statement articulates: "The committee is to function as liaison between the city administrator and the Hispanic community and to advise and make recommendations to the City Manager on current and future issues, needs, programs and services as they relate to the Hispanic community and to ultimately improve the quality of life for all residents of the city. This committee develops strategies to engage the Hispanic community and to formulate productive working relationships between the various entities."
The public relations aspect of radio is also utilized. Falero and a colleague participate in radio broadcasts once per week on Selecta AM 1050 Radio, the Spanish radio station in Norfolk. They take live calls on the air and answer questions from people. Broadcasts provide an avenue to educate community members about the use of 9-1-1, non-emergency numbers, crime lines, the services of the Division of Motor Vehicles and other essential needs.
Falero taped a broadcast on YouTube titled, Behind the Badge. It aired on April 24, 2009, and it was shown consistently six days per week. "It’s more than just the police. It’s what can the city do," Falero said.
The combined approaches utilized in proactive outreach efforts to the Hispanic community have quickly proved fruitful. "The city has been able to improve their services for not only the Hispanic community but other non-English speaking members of our city, which allows our city to be in compliance with Title VI regulations and assists with serving all citizens fairly and equally," Falero said. "I believe if this program is instituted in other cities, it could have a positive impact on not only the growing Hispanic/Latino population but other non-English speaking communities."
Undoubtedly, Newport News has set the tone and created a model for other jurisdictions to emulate.