By Kelly Zegers
Members of the Riverhead Town Police Department recently completed a five-week diversity training course meant to dispel myths that exist among Latino residents about law enforcement on the East End — and vice versa.
The training was offered by OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that aims to empower and inform local Latinos. The goal was to build trust between police and Latino community members so they do not hesitate to call for help as victims of crime or come forward as witnesses.
Reporting of crimes has been decreasing recently among Latino families and individuals, said OLA executive director Minerva Perez. That’s due partly to myths that need to be broken, she said.
“Some of those myths might exist around the willingness or the interest in hearing and communicating with Latino members of the community who are victims or witnesses to crime and this I do believe is a myth,” Ms. Perez said. “I know that law enforcement wants people to come forward to report crime as victims and witnesses. It gets tricky when the language barrier exists.”
People might hesitate to report crimes for a number of reasons, Ms. Perez said. For example, someone may be scared to jeopardize an undocumented family member, even if they weren’t involved in a crime.
During the training, Ms. Perez said, OLA was thrilled to learn how often Riverhead police use the resources they have to communicate with the Latino population in the community on calls, such as a live translation service. Seeing how Riverhead police employ the technology offers a learning opportunity for all East End law enforcement, she said.
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the live translation service has helped a lot to communicate in Spanish when necessary. He noted that some officers have been working on their own to build their proficiency in Spanish.
This type of training is ongoing, Chief Hegermiller said, “so we always have to be aware and make sure that we’re covering all the bases.
“We have a diverse community,” he said.
A major goal of the training was to find ways to establish trust, and communication is a key to that so that people are comfortable reporting crimes.
“That’s what it’s all about, no matter what,” Chief Hegermiller said.
The training took place from 9:45 to 11:15 p.m. over five weeks, at the end of police personnel shifts. The sessions were meant to establish an open dialogue with the trainees, who included police officers, sergeants and dispatch members, Ms. Perez said.
Topics covered included early migration trends, how immigration channels have changed and what challenges exist in communication, Ms. Perez said.
Trainees offered a “wish list” of potentially life-saving information they said is important to be relayed among Latino community, which included marine safety tips and making sure that people are aware of their address in case of an emergency.
OLA conducted similar training with the Southampton Town Police Department last year, and Ms. Perez said the organization appreciated being able to bring it to Riverhead.
“We are fortunate to have so many caring members of law enforcement in Riverhead,” she said.
Photo caption: The training was offered by OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that aims to empower and inform local Latinos. (Courtesy photo)