The Tulsa Police Department's Hispanic Outreach Program has gone from just an idea two years ago to part of a nationwide model for building relationships between immigrant communities and law enforcement officers.
Officials said the program has helped to establish trust between police and immigrants, which helps create a safer community for all Tulsans.
Earlier this month, Officer Jesse Guardiola and Sgt. Mark Sherwood went to the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City to outline the Tulsa Police Department program's six-pronged approach. The Vera Institute is developing a program with the U.S. Department of Justice on how law enforcement agencies can adopt practices to build relationships with immigrant communities.
Following an extensive interview and selection process, Tulsa's Hispanic Outreach Program was one of 10 out of more than 350 selected to be presented to the institute.
"The Justice Department wanted models for ways of doing this correctly in dealing with immigrant populations," Guardiola said. "We collaborated our efforts with other departments going into this national report to be distributed to other agencies on how to build better immigrant relations with law enforcement."
The Tulsa program was created two years ago out of confusion, Guardiola said.
Hispanic residents were fearful of police and didn't know where to go for help, he said. As a result, crimes went unreported.
Guardiola said the Police Department would host presentations to inform immigrants of basic laws and American culture to help bridge the gap.
"In the past, we'd have no one show up because of fear," Guardiola said. "They thought maybe this is a roundup."
But Guardiola and Sherwood developed the approach the department currently uses and started meeting with leaders in the Hispanic community, coming to them and speaking their language.
They recruited interpreters to ride with patrol officers. They started a Spanish-language Crime Stoppers line. A Spanish-language Helpline that went directly to Guardiola and Sherwood was created so that people could report police misconduct and get help in dealing with police issues.
"Two years later, it's a packed house," Guardiola said, "because they are familiar with my last name or Sgt. Sherwood's last name, and we're there to pass out information. That is where we see the strength."
Community leaders have also seen that change. More than creating a more informed immigrant community, it brings new residents out of the dark and into the fold of the community, said Maria Reyes, director of the YWCA Multicultural Center for Immigrant and Refugee Programs.
"It's about building relationships," Reyes said. "They use us because the immigrant community trusts us."
Trust-building can come from something as simple as a shared language. Guardiola said the Vera Institute was particularly impressed by the Tulsa program's use of volunteer interpreters and Guardiola's "Survival Spanish," 27 Spanish phrases that require an action, such as "show me your hands," that are taught to new Tulsa police cadets.
Guardiola said he hopes the program will continue to grow with more bilingual officers hired and more volunteers to serve as translators.
It's a struggle for him and for the department, which is fighting against the polarizing politics of immigration and the fear inherent in the immigrant population. Although the program is still young, Guardiola said that through continued community outreach and involvement, those gaps can be bridged.
"Having the Hispanic community become more educated and partner with the Police Department to the level they help us solve crimes in east Tulsa as opposed to fear us," Guardiola said. "That's where we see our growth."
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