Goshen police, Latino church leaders working to bridge gap of understanding and trust

Public meetings aimed to help Latino community and police understand role of each other in city safety.

Posted on Aug. 8, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Aug. 8, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.

GOSHEN — The Goshen Police Department and leaders in the Latino community have been working together the past few months to help each other understand the role each has in community safety and how each should go about those roles.

What started with a casual chat over lunch about the issue of the number of Latinos driving without licenses grew has grown into a full-on initiative to foster understanding and trust between the Goshen Police Department and the city’s Latino population.

“The idea was, how to bring these two groups together to enter into a conversation about learning who they are and what police does and what kinds of questions might you get asked if you’re pulled over (by Goshen police), what kinds of questions you shouldn’t be asked if you’re pulled over,” said Gilberto Perez Jr., one of the organizers of the initiative.

Branson and Perez, of Bienvenido Community Solutions LLC, decided it would benefit the police department and the Goshen community to hold open meetings where Latinos and the department could have an open dialogue about policy and concerns among both groups.

Perez approached pastors of several city congregations to gauge their interest in having Branson and Detective Mario Mora answer questions from Latino residents who feel uncomfortable around or generally distrust the Goshen police.

Much of the fear from Latino individuals in the community comes out of a simple misunderstanding of the role and policies of the Goshen Police Department, Perez explained.

“One of the things that we saw is the misconception of the role of the city police,” noted Father Fernando Jimenez of St. John’s Catholic Church.

“They just don’t make the distinction between the sheriff, city police or state police, or even an officer from Homeland Security working for immigration.”

The goal of the dialogue is to help Latinos in Goshen understand why the GPD might pull them over, what to expect if they are pulled over and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from a Goshen police officer.

Branson emphasized that the most important point to get across at the meetings, however, is that people need to report crimes when they happen and they should not be afraid of being asked for their documentation or immigration status when they do so.

Branson said the meetings have been just as educational for him, as he learns why some Latino individuals in the community do not trust police.

For a while, Branson said, the department has been pretty sure they were missing a lot of crimes simply because they were going unreported. Now, they understand why.

“It opens my eyes and (officers’) eyes to the thinking behind, ‘Oh, are they going to ask me if I’m here legally or not?’ and that’s not the concept,” Branson said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with immigration status.”

“I didn’t understand the fear was that much and we’re trying to reduce that,” he added.

He said he also uses the meetings to assure individuals that they will not be asked for those documents or retaliated against for making a complaint against an officer.

So far, four meetings have been held at St. John’s Catholic Church, Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor, Comunidad Cristiana Adulam and Goshen College.

They are planning to have about 10 total meetings by the end of the year across five locations, hitting each location twice, but are waiting to hear about a grant proposal from the Community Relations Commission.

The coalition went before the CRC in July to ask for a $2,800 grant that would help to cover the costs of radio public service announcements and interviews and compensation for a meeting facilitator.

They found a facilitator would be necessary to keep discussion at the meetings focused and to help lead the meetings in general.

As far as the radio spots, they would plan on two PSAs played daily on various local stations and one interview a month for three months to help raise awareness of the events.

The coalition hopes to continue the policing meetings through summer 2014 and hopes by that time a foundation of trust and understanding will have been laid throughout the community.

The coalition would like to have representatives from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department at subsequent meetings to answer questions related to the policies of that particular department.

Branson and Perez said they extended the invitation to the sheriff’s department and are quite confident that a sheriff’s representative could be available for future meetings.

All parties involved say the experience has been mutually beneficial so far and would like to see them continue.

“It does help us to help them comprehend that they shouldn’t be afraid of the police. They are here to protect them and to work with them,” Jimenez said. “I think the initiative was very well accepted and we had a good response from people.”

Certainly, the main goal of the initiative is to help increase understanding between the police department and Latino community and to alleviate distrust between the two groups.

Going forward, though, Branson said he’d also like to track the number of crimes reported by Latino individuals as a way of quantifying the coalition’s efforts.

Branson added there have been fewer stops involving Latinos without driver’s licenses. He said he isn’t sure if the recent decline is related at all to the initiative, but that he is confident the initiative is having a positive effect.

“Prior to these community meetings, I kept hearing comments about fear and distrust towards the police,” said David Araujo, senior pastor at Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor.

“It was very important that such an activity was created and that we as ministers were the ones that hosted and invited the chief of police and other community leaders to come to our congregations and speak.”

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