In Garfield County, history can present barriers to trust between Latino community and law enforcement
Weathered relationships between police officers and the Latino community in Glenwood Springs didn’t just happen overnight or for no reason, said Alex Sanchez, executive director of Voces Unidas.
“We’ve had stories about over-aggressive police departments using tactical gear and military gear, and four or five officers to do one very simple traffic stop. So, those types of experiences are what cause the mistrust between the community and our police department,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez wrote in an email that over the past 12 months Voces Unidas heard from 22 different people about instances of what they described as unjust treatment by law officials. Over the summer during the Black Lives Matter rallies in Rifle, Sanchez wrote the Voces staff saw biases in treatment from law enforcement for different communities.
“A gang of motorcycles harassed and launched projectiles using their exhaust pipes towards women, children and other BLM march participants (and) armed militia intimidated peaceful protestors by stalking us as we marched. (This was) all in plain sight and in front of law enforcement. Staff at Voces Unidas even received threats and racist comments on our social media after the BLM events in Rifle,” Sanchez wrote.
A recent case of extortion and intimidation prompted Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras to release a statement telling people that their immigration status is not something to be concerned about when reporting a crime to law enforcement. Deras became Police Chief shortly before the start of the pandemic and has not had many opportunities to meet people in-person like he had hoped, but said he feels equipped to connect with the Latino community in part because of his identity and prior work experience.
“Coming through that election process I made it no secret that I had the skill set to communicate with folks, at some level I’m not a native speaker. My wife and I are raising our children in a bicultural family,” Deras said. “My experience in California working primarily in Latino communities or migrant-based communities positions me well to understand how those relationships might be strained or how people might be afraid of law enforcement. So, I’m in a position where I can really work to allay those fears that people might have.”
Junior Ortega, co-founder and community organizer of AJUA (Asociacion de Jovenes Unidos en Accion: Association of Youth United in Action) a youth-led, immigrant rights and social justice advocacy organization, said while there will be instances of Spanish-translated information from police departments, it isn’t something done in Garfield County on a regular basis.
“It seems that we always have to be poking to make sure that information gets out. And we saw that with the Grizzly Creek Fire,” Ortega said.
At the beginning of the fire information was only being released to the community in English. It was thanks to the leaders in the Latino community that the city began translating their Facebook Live information sessions and other life-saving information in Spanish as well. In response to the press release from Chief Deras regarding the case with extortion using an individual’s immigration status as leverage, Ortega said it is a positive sign of change within law enforcement, but members of the Latino community are accustomed to proceeding with caution and can be skeptical of information from local institutions.
The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition’s (CIRC) docuteam recorded 216 cases of mistreatment from law officials since 2016. AJUA is one of the organizations in partnership with them and will also share cases they record to be added to the overall state database. This is not representational of how many calls they received on their hotline in general, since sometimes individuals opt for anonymity.
“Having those statements out in the community definitely helps the community,” Ortega said. “I think something that we’ve learned to do or how we learn to adapt is that we’ve always been fairly conscious of what we hear and what we believe.”
Deras said he saw the case of extortion as an opportunity to reach out to the Latino community directly, but both Sanchez and Ortega agreed that translations are something that should be done on a regular basis. Doing this would continue to grow trust — but that doesn’t rule out setbacks where Latinos weren’t treated fairly that can just as easily undo the already fragile relationship.
“We got to walk with one eye open. As much trust that is potentially being built, there’s always someone that causes that trust to go down. So, you know it’s great that we sometimes take a step forward, but (then) we take three steps back,” Ortega said.
Deras said he is planning to host a community police academy program in Spanish, geared toward the Latino community so they can gain a better understanding of how the department operates. Deras said he had conducted similar 12-week programs in past roles and that it forms relationships and people who participated can share their experience with others.
“At the end of those 12 weeks they leave here with friendships with our staff and they’ve really become advocates of the police,” Deras said.
Sanchez said regardless of immigration status, making those connections with law enforcement can be difficult due to lack of knowledge on how to navigate the system, language barriers or stories shared that reinforce distrust. However, he said he looks forward to the direction Deras is taking the Glenwood Police Department in and hopes to see more efforts of outreach in the future.
“We as an organization are very optimistic about some of the new leaders who have come into place in various institutions. And we look forward to continuing to work with them as they look deep within their department to ensure that they are people friendly, that they make sure they build outreach and create trust with our community, because that improves public safety,” Sanchez said.
Reporter Jessica Peterson can be reached at 970-279-3462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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