Mo. officer tries to bridge gap between Latino community and cops

The officer said officers need to engage with the community to become 'partners in fighting crime'

By Maria Ines Zamudio
The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kansas City police officer Octavio "Chato" Villalobos wanted to become an officer to try to stop the racial profiling he experienced and his children continued to experience.

But his plan quickly changed after basic training.

"I went in with a good heart and came out with a cop brain," he said in Memphis Tuesday during a workshop aimed at strengthening relationships between Latinos and law enforcement. "I used my Spanish to arrest people, because that's how I'm going to be a good cop ... I had to prove that I was a good officer by their standards."

After a few years, he wanted to work in the neighborhood he grew up in. He had great arrest numbers and even worked as a homicide detective. But he realized that wasn't the way to police his community. Villalobos explained that community policing and target-oriented policing works better in communities of color because police officers need to engage the community to become "partners in fighting crime and not an occupying force."

That's was the message he brought to Memphis. He asked Latino leaders and Memphians attending the yearly Congreso Latino conference to ask for a better type of policing.

Villalobos' workshop is part of Congreso Latino, a four-day conference for businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies who want to reach out to the growing Latino community in Memphis. The conference also had leadership training sessions for students and young Latino professionals who wanted to learn leadership skills. The yearly event will end Wednesday featuring as keynote speaker Peabody and Emmy winning journalist Maria Hinojosa.

The conference started on Sunday with a rally, where about 800 students from Shelby County schools participated. The conference, which is hosted by Latino Memphis, presented other workshops such as "understanding life in the shadows: A primer on immigration process," "education policy and Latino student achievement," "Latino, immigration and mental health," among others.

Many Latinos distrust police officers, and that is a serious problem, said Ivonne Perez, who works for Catholic Charities.

"Immigrants come to me and tell me, ‘I can report the crime to the police but the case takes too long and who is going to protect me? Just forget it'," Perez said. "They complain about the way they are treated by police."

Perez said the precinct in Hickory Hill, where most of the Latinos live, has only two officers who speak Spanish. And that's not enough for the growing population, she said.

According to 2013 U.S. Census estimates, 6 percent of the people who live in Memphis were born in Latin America.

Many Latino immigrants have been victims of robberies, but many don't report the crime because they are afraid. The distrust of police stems from those robbery victims' experiences with law enforcement in their countries of origin as well as from experiences in Memphis, spokesmen for the Latino community said.

In 2011, Memphis Police officer Lorenzo Couch was arrested after he was accused of robbing two Latinos of nearly $500 during a traffic stop.

Those stories about police harassing immigrants circulate widely among the community. Immigrants warn each other that an interaction with Memphis police can lead to deportation.

But that's a misconception, said MPD officer Tadario Holmes.

"We are restricted by policy from contacting (immigration authorities)," Holmes told a group of service providers at the conference. "If an officer checks on immigration status, the officer could get fired."

Holmes started the Hispanic Outreach Programs and Services, an initiative for MPD to engage with the Latino community.

Programs like HOPS is a start, said Villalobos, but support from top brass is needed for effective community policing initiatives to be successful.

"Reach out to your police department," he said. "I challenge you to go and say we are going to partner up with you. What do you need from us. We need to work together."

Copyright 2015 The Commercial Appeal 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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