CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) – The Chattanooga Police Department is implementing a slew of new initiatives and programs it hopes will improve its relationship with the city's Latino and Hispanic community.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that only eight of the department's 470 sworn personnel are certified as Spanish interpreters. And as of late last year, there were only 13 Hispanic police officers.
"When they call 911 or when they call for help, a lot of times there are not interpreters, no one who can understand what they're saying," said Stacy Johnson, executive director at La Paz, a nonprofit that advocates for the local Latino community. "That becomes a big barrier for the Latino population and reaching out to police."
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports crime against Hispanics and Latinos in Hamilton County jumped by 22 percent between 2012 and 2013.
Many of them are hesitant to report crimes, either because they are in the country illegally or because they fear police corruption.
"They're afraid to call, or they're not sure of the process," said Johnson, adding that the police department once hosted programs focused on educating the Latino community, but hasn't done so in years.
However, the department is hoping to quell concerns with initiatives aimed at re-establishing a comfortable rapport between Chattanooga's growing population of Spanish speakers and the department's predominantly white and black officers.
One program is the Spanish-language citizens' police academy, an eight-week course that gives participants a comprehensive explanation of how the police force works. The department will also offer free Spanish-language refresher courses to employees.
Additionally, the department is working with Chattanooga State Community College to launch a program called RISE -- Refugee Immigrant Safety Education -- to especially equip and educate refugees and immigrants. And Police Chief Fred Fletcher has created an immersion program that asks cadets to carefully study minority communities.
"Every single (initiative) is about learning to appreciate the culture," Fletcher said.
Lesly Vicente can appreciate the effort. In 2012, three masked robbers stole all the cash in the store owned by her and her husband.
When police officers arrived, Vicente said one of them could speak a little Spanish. However, that helped grow her confidence in police.
"Because we went through something with them," she said.