Police Take Community Outreach to City Hall
Newport News Police Department
Community policing transforms crime reduction into a city-wide commitment to quality service delivery and community trust.
In the early 2000s, a group of Spanish-speaking police officers in Newport News, Virginia realized that the city’s Hispanic population was changing. On their patrols they came across newcomers who were surprised to learn they spoke Spanish and began to tell stories of the robberies and home invasions they were experiencing.
But when the officers went to update these reports, they found nothing. Crimes were going unreported by newcomers from Latin America with little English and even less trust in the authorities based on experiences of police brutality in their homelands. Newport News Police realized how vulnerable these people were and that their city was facing a potentially serious problem.
Although Hispanics represented a little over 5% of a population of 180,000 in Newport News, the newer part of the community was particularly vulnerable. Many were men who had traveled to the US to work as labourers and had limited English skills. They were more transient, shared housing in cramped conditions, and often sent the money they earned back to families in their countries of origin.
These workers were also known as ‘walking ATMs’ because they didn’t use banks; instead, they carried their paycheques in cash or kept their savings in their rooms. This made them vulnerable theft and to violent gangs who demanded payments for ‘protection’.
In 2003, Sargeant Xavier Falero and fellow Spanish-speaking street cops in Newport News applied and received support from their police chief to launch the Hispanic Community Outreach Program.
Armed with police information brochures translated into Spanish for the first time, the officers went out to Hispanic churches in the community to do their outreach. But their initial attempts failed. The few people who attended were wary, worried about a potential police raid. The police received the same response when they tried another approach by visiting a neighbourhood in a mobile police station – a command bus with no windows. Again, few people showed up.
“It looked like we were going to arrest people,” remembers Sgt. Falero.
Success came when Sgt Falero showed up wearing a polo shirt and a police services vehicle that looked liked an ice cream truck. Now as many as 100 people would show up to learn about making a police report or how to use the 911 emergency phone system. Trust was beginning to build.
Outreach efforts soon revealed that many police officers had little understanding of the diversity within the Hispanic and Latino communities, where the population included the native-born as well as newcomers from countries such as Mexico, Uruguay, and El Salvador. Language barriers worked both ways. Spanish-speaking officers sometimes needed interpreters because they could not understand the many dialects used within the community.
Police calls that were supposed to be quick started running long and cutting into scheduling resources because comprehension was such a problem for most officers. So the department developed an 8-hour Spanish course for new recruits to learn key terms and phrases so they could initiate questions and answers on their calls while they waited for an interpreter. Sgt. Falero also put together cultural awareness training to help established officers understand the nuances within Hispanic-Latino communities.
Building Trust for the Long-term
One result of the Hispanic Community Outreach Program was an unexpected, short-term rise in crime. Good News! Previously unreported crimes were finally being tracked. Within the year, the crime rate began to drop again as police efforts to educate the community on how to avoid becoming victims of crimes started to pay off.
Despite the early success, the police department noticed that by 2006, the reporting of crime had begun to fall again. The transient nature of the target community meant that a more sustained effort would be required to teach the latest newcomers that community police officers could be trusted.
To broaden their outreach, officers began to play soccer games with local teams, and Sgt. Falero began regular radio appearances on Hispanic stations.
As Police began to consult regularly with local Hispanic leaders, they found themselves reporting back on other issues the community was facing, such as difficulties accessing city services such as health care or housing related to information and language barriers.
Newly informed, the City Manager realized that most city agencies were unaware that there was a problem and recognized an important opportunity to improve city services.
In 2008 the newly minted Hispanic Advisory Committee (HAC) was formally re-convened to meet with a working group made up of city departments including public health, the fire department, and the school system.
Through the support of the City Manager, the Hispanic Advisory Committee has taken a leadership role. With its own strategic plan in place, they have held public consultations for Spanish-speakers to ask questions of all city departments and related agencies; added Google Translator to the city website; and proposed multilingual signage in city buildings. They have also worked with the Health Department and Human Services to hire bilingual staff.
In 2010, the city was recognized as a gold winner by the National League of Cities’ 2010 Awards for Municipal Excellence (in the category of cities with a population of 150,001-500,000) for its outreach efforts with the Hispanic community.
Sgt. Falero has led this transformative initiative from the beginning. “I can’t believe it started because a couple of street cops said, ‘this is not right.'” He credits the leadership of both the Newport News police chief and the City Manager for the success the city has experienced.
“If the city government doesn’t believe it’s an issue, they are not going to address it,” says Falero. “If you don’t have that cohesiveness between city management and the police department, it can be very difficult to get it off the ground…You have to get that perfect mixture.
Can it be done? Yes.”
Making it Work for You:
- Create an advisory committee from the community to broaden your ability to identify problems and come up with new solutions.
- Give the advisory committee room to develop their own ideas and strategic plans.
- If your first idea does not work, try again. And again.
- Challenge your assumptions. Are you developing outreach using your own belief systems? Will it apply to communities outside your sphere of work?
For this Good Idea contact:
Sergeant Xavier O. Falero, Newport News Police Department
Special Operations Unit Supervisor, Newport News Police Department
9710 Jefferson Avenue
Newport News, Virginia, United States,