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Hagerstown police seek liaison to work with Hispanics

September 18, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN - Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith asked Wednesday that a liaison from the Hispanic community be appointed to work closely with one of his detectives in an effort to better work with Hispanics.

"We're getting a larger and larger Hispanic community in Hagerstown," Smith said during a meeting with members of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

While the population presents few crime issues, the chief feels Hispanics who need police assistance are not likely to call, he said.

"We would like more interaction with the Latino residents," Smith said. A greater police presence among the Hispanic community would also help keep out members of the gang MS-13, the chief said.

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MS-13 moves into communities by exploiting Latino populations that don't report crimes to police, he said. The gang has a presence in Frederick and in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, but so far not in Hagerstown, the chief said.

Ensuring new residents in the community understand how to obtain driver's licenses and the proper registrations is an important step toward preventing negative interactions with police, Smith said.

One member of the Chamber asked Smith what the police were doing about the language barrier between Hispanics and officers.

A couple of people in his department are fluent in Spanish, Smith said. Others have attended a state-sponsored language program to learn basic phrases to use in their policing duties, but don't use the language often enough to keep their skills sharp, Smith said.

A lack of understanding, both by officers who don't speak Spanish and Hispanics who don't speak English, contributes to the Hispanic community not assimilating, Diana Reyes, president of the Hispanic Association of Hagerstown, explained after the chief spoke.

Working with a Spanish-speaking liaison to the police department would help, as long as its a person the Hispanic community can trust, Reyes said.

"I'm very happy to be working with someone like the chief we have," she said.

Jorge Ribas, president of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, echoed Reyes' sentiments.

"We're very fortunate to have a person like you. Highly educated, with a lot of experience," Ribas told the chief.

Ribas had questioned Smith about racial profiling during traffic stops and about the police department's policy toward undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigration is dealt with at the federal level, and there is limited enforcement in Maryland, the chief said.

As for profiling, during most traffic stops, officers are required to fill out a form that includes information about the driver's ethnicity, Smith said. Information gathered from those forms is then monitored by other agencies.

Reyes said she had been worried about the police department's policies on immigrants and was glad to have those clarified.

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