Many cities have seen their Hispanic population skyrocket in recent years. Why don’t police departments reflect that diversity?
Angel Viera has lived in Reading, on and off, since 1991. It’s his home. And yet, he doesn’t feel entirely welcome in the city.
“I’ve been stopped by the cops like, in the last year, four times,” said Viera, who is Latino. His girlfriend is white. “They thought I was her drug dealer. They stopped us for three hours one time because they didn’t believe that was my girlfriend.”
Viera has an arrest record and has spent some time in state prison. But he says even though he’s cleaned up his act, the police are quick to stereotype him and other Latinos.
“It’s the lack of people understanding the cultural difference,” he said. “It’s deep. It’s deep, and it’s a shame that, 2015, 2016, we’re still going through this.”
Reading is nearly 60 percent Latino. There are more Latinos in Reading than there are people in the city of Harrisburg. And yet the police force is only 13 percent bilingual Spanish-speaking.
That’s a divide that creates problems for the Latino community and the police officers themselves. Officer Diego Arciniegas is one of the force’s 21 bilingual officers.
“During midnights [shifts], there were only two of us who spoke Spanish,” said Arciniegas. “I could be on the Northwest and I could be called to the Southeast for translation, back and forth all throughout the city.”
Whether it’s because of the language barrier, or just because Arciniegas looks more like the people he interviews, he says it’s easier for him to get information from people.
“They are definitely more willing to be open,” said Arciniegas, who was born in Colombia. “Even sometimes people who speak some English are more open if you can talk to them in Spanish. They feel more comfortable and like there’s someone who understands them.”
Lawsuit to the rescue
Reading has a long way to go until its police force reflects the diversity of the city. But the city is actually doing better than many in Pennsylvania.
Allentown (42 percent Hispanic) has a police force that’s 5 percent bilingual. Philadelphia (13 percent Hispanic) is less than 2 percent. And Hazleton (40 percent Hispanic) has one Spanish-speaking officer.
Reading found help in an unlikely place: a lawsuit.
In 2003, the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition sued the city for lack of diversity in the police department. The resulting settlement created the Police Diversity Board.
“Numbers of people, scores of people, I should say, came to the Police Diversity Board meeting,” said Valentin Rodriguez, then-head of the board and current mayor of West Reading. “They were documented with their experiences, with the issues they had and the language barrier that existed and still exists.”
Based on those experiences, the board recommended that the city modify the civil service exam rules to give bilingual candidates extra points. While extra points are allowed statewide for veterans, most cities can’t modify civil service rules to fit their needs. The lawsuit opened up that opportunity for Reading.
“That’s allowed us to make slow progress in hiring bilingual officers,” said former Reading Police Chief William Heim. “We absolutely do not have enough on the force right now, but we’ve made consistent progress and hope it will accelerate from there.”
Many people would like to see the police department make greater progress, more quickly. But compare Reading to most cities, where they can’t offer extra points to bilingual candidates, and you’ll see that progress happens elsewhere at a much slower pace.
I toured Hazleton in November with Frank DeAndrea. At the time, DeAndrea was the city’s police chief but he was let go when the new mayor took office in January. He had a lot of insight into the challenge of hiring Spanish speakers.
For one thing, DeAndrea had fewer applicants to choose from in general.
“In the 70s and 80s, there were over 100 people that would take the test every year,” said DeAndrea. “Last time we gave the test, I had 15 applicants. Four of them passed everything to include the backgrounds.”
He hired all four, one of whom was bilingual. Hazleton, like many cities in Pennsylvania, doesn’t have enough funds for recruiting or expanding the police force.
“I call the police departments in Allentown, or Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, and I ask them to distribute my ad,” said DeAndrea. “I contact the Latino newspapers, the Latinos that I know that are big in the community and say, ‘we are hiring, could you please tell everyone you know.'”
“It is all we can do to keep our heads above water with the limited staff that we have.”
Hazleton has become a stop on the “Heroin Highway,” and it’s rife with gang activity. The city has a violent crime rate four times the national average. Fewer cops are working longer hours, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying automatic weapons. It’s not a job that everyone is jumping to take.
DeAndrea realized that he had all the cops he was going to get for the time being. So he found a creative workaround to the language barrier dividing his community.
Ron Bruni, a Nanticoke native, was looking to pilot a new language learning program he’d been developing. DeAndrea convinced Bruni to work with him and some of his cops three times a week for three months, pro bono. The class learned basic Spanish vocabulary and role-played common police scenarios where a little Spanish could go a long way.
DeAndrea started the program knowing he and his officers wouldn’t be fluent anytime soon. But he wanted to take the first step to prove that the police were willing to work with the Latino community.
“I’ve got to do something. I can’t command the population, ‘speak the language or you’re not getting our help,'” he said. “I am sworn to serve and protect.”
Though no longer police chief, DeAndrea is continuing to serve the community — and practice his Spanish — as president of the Board of Directors at the Hazleton Integration Project. It’s not yet clear whether the new chief will continue the initiatives he set up.
But until there is more money in the budget for recruiting, or a federal lawsuit to move the needle, the city doesn’t have many options.
Today, the officers serve and protect. But perhaps, one day, more of them will sirven y protegen.