"Hablas espaol?" The number of Durham police officers answering no to that question is just one of the reasons helping the Latino community has become a major city government priority.
Yesterday, Mayor Bill Bell announced the Hispanic/Latino Outreach initiative--a program designed to reduce victimization of Latinos in Durham, increase understanding of Hispanic issues throughout the city and integrate Latinos into the social fabric of the community. The City Council in conjunction with El Centro Hispano--a resource center for Durham's Spanish-speaking community--will head the program.
"I'm very proud of the leadership that Bill Bell is providing. He recognizes the need for a special effort to get services to a community that has the challenges of cultural and language barriers," said John Herrera, vice president of Latino and Hispanic affairs at the Self-Help Credit Union and board member of the Latino Community Credit Union.
Bell said Herrera was the first person he consulted when initiative planning began six to eight weeks ago.
"After having read [about the last homicide involving a Latino victim], I called John Herrera and said I thought it might be worthwhile to sit down and talk," Bell said. "After having discussions there were obviously issues other than violence [that needed to be addressed]."
Bell said funding and support are not a concern since much of the initiative's backing relies on shifting current arrangements. "All the departments involved have made a commitment to redistribute their resources," he said.
Crime prevention is a top priority in the new initiative. Herrera said the difficulty of fighting crime is exacerbated by the lack of bilingual police officers.
"It is hard to solve a crime when you can't communicate in the same language," Herrera said. "Where we are coming from, we don't trust the police. If you are from Guatemala, the police are the ones that killed your family members."
The initiative will begin by focusing on two target communitiesï¿½ï¿½the Palm Park Apartments and the Albright neighborhood. At least one full-time Spanish-speaking officer, responsible for organizing cookouts, focus groups and educational opportunities, will be assigned to each neighborhood.
Under the new plan, the city council's Human Relations Department will encourage all local banks to expand their services so that the Hispanic community can open savings accounts in their local banks. The need for banking services stems from another initiative established two years agoï¿½ï¿½the Latino Community Credit Union.
"The need [for the LCCU] was basically a community response to crime in Durham," Herrera said, noting that many Latinos did not have bank accounts and kept all their money in their houses--a prime robbery site.
City officials hope to better integrate the Hispanic community into Durham through outreach programs including holding mini town hall meetings in Latino communities, developing a Spanish language-based Citizens Police Academy and offering Spanish-language tours of City Hall. Police personnel will also undergo cultural awareness classes.
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County administrators said their efforts to help Latinos are couched in a broader goal to help a wider spectrum of Durham citizens.
"I think the county is doing a commendable job providing for all needy citizens," said County Commissioner Joe Bowser. "I don't think we can just pick out a program and say this is for Latinos, this is for blacks or this is for whites."