Latino SAFE program bridges language barrier

However, successful pilot project for immigrants is threatened by state funding cuts

A popular police outreach program focused on the Latino community is almost out of funds, facing an uncertain future in a bleak economy. But Latino residents and the two-year pilot project's founders say the Latino-focused SAFE program is something the city can't do without.

Police Sgt. Giovanni Veliz, creator of the pilot program called "El Projecto Latino," said that the city's steadily growing Latino population needs police policy and safety education. Such education can dispel misimpressions about American police officers and help Latinos participate more in crime-prevention and safety initiatives.

"They distrust the police and think we're the arms of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services)," Veliz said.

Because the police are feared and seen as a threat, Veliz said, many in the Latino community don't call the police when they need to. Because of language barriers and

cultural differences, he said many also don't know the appropriate U.S. police procedures -- whether how and when to dial 911 or what to do at in traffic stop. Veliz said the Latino SAFE project has helped.

The project's history

When the Ecuadorian-born Veliz first came to the Minneapolis police academy from New York City in 1992, he said outreach to the Latino community was seen as unnecessary. He said a police lieutenant at the academy told him he didn't think there was a need for Spanish-speaking officers in Minneapolis.

"You're wrong, my friend," Veliz says now with a large grin.

He knew Latinos were everywhere through his patrol-officer beat work, and in 1996, he became a SAFE officer, responsible for community crime-prevention and neighborhood outreach. In 1999, he said he spawned the Latino SAFE team idea.

Veliz started the two-year team in 2002 with a $180,000 grant from the state and federal government. In December he hired Angel Morales, a civilian crime-prevention specialist who has worked with the program since July.

Morales had experience doing Latino neighborhood outreach. He came to Minneapolis two years ago from Anaheim, Cal., where he was involved in a similar crime-prevention project in his neighborhood. "They have too much drug-selling, gangs and prostitution," he said.

Morales, a father of four, said gang activity in Anaheim was the main reason he moved to Minneapolis.

He said it's important for community members to work together with the police, not just to ease fears, but also to bridge cultural differences. "The community needs a lot of education, because when they come from another country, we have different cultures and rules," Morales said.

In Mexico, where he's originally from, Morales said when you're stopped by police it's customary to get out of the car to provide the police with your information. Here, he said, when the police pull over a vehicle, they want the occupants to stay in the car.

Bridging the gap between these cultural differences has been one of the project's goals, which Veliz and Morales have accomplished through workshops, block-club leader training and a citizen's academy, which yielded 23 graduates last November.

Community participation

Fernando Maldonado, a South Minneapolis resident who moved here from Mexico with his wife just seven months ago, said he attended the academy and was one of the 23 graduates.

He said he attended the seven-week academy classes because he wanted to learn more about the law and treatment of Hispanic people. Although he's busy with an infant son and a new job, Maldonado said he wanted to focus his spare time on helping people in the Latino community, to be a good citizen and try to disprove stereotypes. "Here people think we came to rob and be bad citizens, but we're not all in gangs or bad," he said.

Maldonado said through the academy training he learned basic things about U.S. police procedures. He said unlike in Mexico, in Minneapolis a broken car light could warrant a ticket, but many Latinos misinterpret a police encounter as a run-in with immigration.

South Minneapolis resident Juan Linares came to Minneapolis more than 20 years ago from Mexico City. He suggested the crime-prevention-training idea to Veliz after attending a 10-week academy at Fort Snelling.

Linares said racism and discrimination are something Latinos face during routine traffic stops; they are questioned about why they don't speak English and about their country of origin. He said such questioning makes people nervous, but the academy could help. "It's about educating a newcomer community to begin to understand exactly why police do what they do," Linares said. "What do you need to say, and not say."

Is Latino programming helping?

Veliz said that so far, outreach efforts have been very successful. He said business safety workshops are filled with interested Latino business owners. He added that by educating Latinos about how to communicate with the police, they have apprehended alleged criminals -- including breaks in forgery and narcotics cases, and apprehending at least three homicide suspects.

A big Southwest success story, he said, happened on the 2000 block of Nicollet Avenue. Veliz said someone posing as an INS agent was going from apartment to apartment in a primarily Latino-populated building, demanding money and threatening deportation. He said someone who had attended crime-prevention training called 911 and reported the incident.

Veliz said that in another case, a man who had attended the training was able to stop his daughter from choking by calling 911 and requesting a Spanish-speaking operator for help, as they had been taught in the workshop.

Maldonado said he feels that the training has helped him and made him more equipped to help others. "If some people come to my door and need help, I can help them and answer some questions," he said. "I feel like I know a lot more."

Maldonado said Veliz and Morales have worked hard to try and transform the image of the police and educate people. "They have been so helpful in the Latino community," he said.

However, Maldonado said the outreach effort should be taken further into the community, to help more people.

Will the program continue?

Tricia Hummel, acting planning director for the state's Office of Drug Policy and Violence Prevention, issued the $180,000 grant for the program and said she is pleased with the progress, but isn't sure if funding will continue. "Our hope is to renew them for another two years," she said, but with the state's $5.5 billion projected budget shortfall "it's all up in the air."

Hummel said she believes in the program, which has been as good for law enforcement officials as it is for

participants. "I hope it will be institutionalized," she said, adding that she believes it should be a model for other departments.

Linares said programs such as Latino SAFE must be continued and expanded. "What good would it do to tease us for two years and drop [the program] when we have huge walls to break. We need bulldozers, but there's no money," he said.

Maldonado said outreach efforts should be expanded because many uneducated and undocumented immigrants are too afraid to come to workshops and interact with the police. "I invited three friends and they told me 'Hey, are you crazy?'" he said.

Linares said that training is not enough; the police department must hire more Hispanic personnel to reflect the community.

Police Chief Robert Olson has been a big program supporter, Veliz said, and he's also gotten favorable comments from others in the department. He reported proudly that more than 120 officers have voluntarily taken department Spanish classes.

Veliz said he's optimistic that Latino SAFE will become permanent, and hopes when he applies for further funding, he'll get it. "To me it's pride, because I can teach my co-workers about where I come from, and I'm proud this is what I do," he said.

Until budget specifics can be worked out, Veliz said he's concentrating on the next civilian academy course planned for March. For more information on the Latino SAFE project or civilian academy, contact Veliz at 673-5581 or Morales at 673-5579.