Police are reaching out to the local Hispanic community.
With a relationship compromised by cultural differences, language barriers, racial and immigration issues, the Riley County Police Department is working to build stronger and more positive relationships with the 3,000-plus Hispanic residents in the area.
RCPD director Brad Schoen said differences in culture account for one major hurdle the police hope to overcome.
“They can be suspicious of law enforcement, because a lot of them come from countries where law enforcement is not necessarily apolitical,” Schoen said.
RCPD’s captain Kurt Moldrup said because of that fear of police, a lot of crime goes unreported.
Moldrup said he’s heard some members of the Hispanic community will take advantage of others, knowing the victims won’t call police.
“If they’re a victim, they’re still a victim,” he said. “If you’re mistreated, we want to know and we will do something about it.”
There’s also a significant language barrier that often needs to be addressed.
One step the RCPD recently took to overcome that problem was to make its website accessible to Spanish speakers by offering a translation option.
Along with language accessibility on the website, Schoen said the department is examining a change in policy that could result in incentive pay for employees who speak Spanish.
He said there is also a translation service when someone calls dispatch.
Moldrup estimated that out of the 82 police officers in RCPD’s patrol division, perhaps four speak Spanish.
He also estimated that two or three dispatchers and four or five corrections officers can converse in Spanish, as well.
To combat the language issue during traffic stops, Moldrup said the department is looking to hand out cards written in Spanish – explaining the process when someone gets pulled over.
He said officers would hand out cards when people don’t understand what’s being said.
Manhattan resident and native Costa Rican Jorge Vargas, 46, said he and some of his friends have had some negative experiences with the police and that there’s a need for better communication between the two groups.
Vargas said one of his friends who couldn’t speak English was pulled over in Manhattan and mocked by the officers who stopped him.
“Police were asking him if he wanted to go to jail, and the only thing he knew (to say) was “Yeah,” Vargas said. “And they were laughing.”
Though Vargas speaks English, he said he’s had his own negative experiences with police that he thinks could have revolved around racial or documentation issues.
He said he believed he was wrongfully pulled over for a traffic violation he didn’t commit, and when the officer checked his license and realized Vargas was an American citizen, the officer said, “I was just testing you to see if you were paying attention,” Vargas said.
But there is an opposite side to the issue.
Manhattan resident Rusel Valdez, 22, said he’s had positive experiences with police here. He said in the two years he’s lived in the area, he has been pulled over twice.
He said both times the officers were “really nice.”
Valdez said that, in general, police in the United States are better than in other countries.
“It’s a lot better than Mexico,” he said, citing corruption as one of Mexican authorities’ most persistent problems.
Moldrup said RCPD is focusing on Riley County’s Hispanic community because it’s growing. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Hispanics comprise the largest minority population here with 5.8 percent of Manhattan residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino.
Moldrup said if there are other minority groups in the area that feel alienated, the department wants to know about that, too.
While the RCPD is working on the barriers between police and the Hispanic population with translation services, police liaisons and a community advisory board, director Schoen said those programs can’t solve everything.
“It’s going to be an ongoing thing,” Schoen said.