ELKHART — Local law enforcement officials have been meeting with small groups from the Latino community to send one important message across: They are not the enemy.
Once a month for the last eight months, the two groups have been meeting at community police presentations to learn about each other and bridge the gap between the two.
Gilberto Perez Jr., a professor at Goshen College, spearheaded the efforts to bring the groups together after speaking with Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson and pastors at local churches about law enforcement and its relationship with the Latino community.
So far, the feedback has been positive and insightful, Perez said.
"We find that people are grateful in the sense that we are providing space to interact with law enforcement officials," Perez said. "They are also grateful for the job the officers do. They know it's a difficult job, and they appreciate that."
Since the initial talk between Perez and Branson, some local congregations have joined. Elkhart County Sheriff's Department has also participated in the monthly meetings.
The Goshen Community Relations Commission approved a $2,800 grant for the initiative. The grant money has been used for spots on local radio stations and to compensate meeting facilitators.
In the basement of Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor, a church in Goshen, a group of 50 people gathered the morning of Feb. 9 for one of their monthly meetings with law enforcement officials.
After a brief introduction, the group split into two groups and shared their experiences and questions about law enforcement in Goshen and Elkhart County.
In these small groups, people can be as open as they wish. Students, teachers, community leaders and church members, most of them coming from a Latino background, attended the presentation.
Each group had a police officer, an interpreter and a person who served as a moderator and wrote down questions and concerns from participants.
The topics of racial profiling and immigration status came up. And though both topics made officials and community members tense, many people in attendance, including Andrea Medina, agreed that the discussions were an important first step in building trust between the two groups.
Medina, a Goshen College student who has been helping Perez for a class, attended the meeting to help facilitate conversations between participants and officials.
"It makes me feel more connected to a lot of what people are going through in this community," she said.
Some asked about the process involved in traffic stops. Others asked about local law enforcement agencies' relationship with federal agencies, such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers offered his point of view on issues brought up at the meeting and answered any questions the participants had.
"I realize that sometimes people are a little edgy on some things, but it's good to talk to the people and let them see a more personable side of the officers, so they can realize we're not some monster out there, and that we are approachable," he said.
For Rogers and Branson, the most important part of these conversations is getting the community to know them and trust them so that if someone becomes the victim of a crime he can report it to police.
Branson said while the Goshen Police Department has not tracked victims reporting crimes by ethnicity, he has heard feedback from those who have participated in the meetings.
"Several Hispanics present at the meetings have advised that they have reported a crime that they may have not reported prior to attending the presentation," he said.
Although organizers say the presentations have been positive, they also say it's just the first step bridging the gap between the Latinos and the local community.
David Araujo, lead pastor at Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor, has been helping Perez organize some of the presentations and translate.
"These conversations and community events are not going to solve a lot of our most pressing concerns and issues quickly, but it is a good start," he said. "We are seeing some results. I think the more we have the right space like this, I believe we will have people who are going to feel safe and know that Goshen Police are not out there to single out a certain community and deport as many of us as they can."
Perez said while the focus of these presentations has been law enforcement, he'd like to have similar presentations with other city offices, like the street department, or legislators, who could better answer some of the questions that have been asked.
The community policing presentations will continue until June or July, and after that, organizers will evaluate the presentations. Then they will see if they will plan more presentations.
"The one positive thing happening is Latino pastors are now encouraging to have community members, or Latino congregants, to be more active in other groups and to be more active in the community, instead of staying to themselves," Perez said. "We want to encourage them to be open to other opportunities of civic engagement."