How Raleigh police are working to break down barriers with Hispanic communities

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Alejandro Tovar was born and raised in Venezuela, a country with a history of corrupt law enforcement officers.

“Coming from another country where police is not good. They are all corrupt. You can’t trust them,” Tovar said. He is a master officer with the Raleigh Police Department.

It is one reason he left his country behind looking for the American dream.

Tovar said he spoke no English.

“None, whatsoever. I actually learned watching television, the show ‘Friends,'” he said.

Learning the English language wasn’t the only barrier he would have to overcome. Tovar’s new life meant looking for a new job. He found one in a very unlikely place.

“When I got here, learning a little more about policing and how the police connect with the community, it made me realize it is a different environment,” Tovar said.

He’s been a Raleigh police officer for now for almost six years.

Not everyone who comes to the United States looking for a new life finds the American dream. They face unique obstacles from the criminal justice system, such as immigration status and racial bias. The biggest barrier is likely the language.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 30 percent of Hispanics in the United States do not consider themselves English proficient.

And the Hispanic population is growing at a steady pace. In the last 10 years, the Hispanic population in North Carolina grew from 8.4 to 10.7 percent.

That means around 1-in-9 residents in the state are Latinos, but that number could be much higher. There are Hispanics who choose to ignore the census because of language barriers, being undocumented, and fear or mistrust of the government.

According to Raleigh Police Sgt. Jaime Priest: “They always go to the children to communicate, so the barrier is always going to be English. If you can’t communicate with your community, then there is a problem.”

Priest has been with RPD since 1997 and gets out in the community to meet people outside his culture. He said the first step in breaking barriers is breaking bread with different people.

“I can tell you. It’s pretty simple. To me, it’s the basics: music and food,” Priest said.

Officers were recently brought to Ministerio Internacional Tierra Deseable to teach non-English speakers how the criminal justice system works for them, what they should do if they’re ever approached by a police officer, and the rights they have living in the United States.

“I think that if we can get the community to understand that and to become friends with them, it would be a lot easier for our people,” said Senior Pastor Edgar Calles.

He said it is the first step in breaking the barriers with the Hispanic community.

“We want your cooperation and we want your trust,” Priest said.

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