LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - The Little Rock Police Department continued its 'Chat with the Chief' series Monday night, but some people were expecting a different kind of “chat.”
“I saw a report, and there was not any in Spanish,” Leticia Reta stated. “I saw a person who came to speak Spanish, but I don’t see nobody translating, you know? And there were people, there was Hispanic community here, and I didn’t see and I didn’t hear anybody translating to that community.”
The meeting, the latest of several around the city in which Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner gave a presentation and took questions from the audience, was held in southwest Little Rock, where officers have struggled to communicate with the large Hispanic population.
In promoting the event, the department mentioned that translators would be on hand, and a bilingual officer was present. Reta, the central organizer for Arkansas United Community Coalition, an outreach group for the Hispanic community, thought there would be a consistent translation.
Instead, more than an hour and a half passed before a Spanish-language journalist asked Buckner if the interpreter would help Spanish-speakers ask him questions.
The communication barrier has been in focus for the last week, in the wake of the murder of Evilio Castro-Alvarez. He was shot and killed July 29 at the Spanish Valley Apartments on Baseline Road. Detectives believe the killer was attempting to rob him because Hispanic people often carry cash instead of using a bank.
“Even if you don’t have money, they’re gonna put the pistol to your head, asking for money,” Reta mentioned.
Buckner said detectives had little information about Alvarez’s killer because the witnesses did not speak English, and only one bilingual officer was on the scene to assist the approximately 15 witnesses. Reta said that frustrated many of them.
“Insist, make the phone (call) to the police department you want to make a report,” she said she advised them. “At some point, they’re going to pay attention to you. But if not, you can reach to any organization, or you can come to Arkansas United Community Coalition, and we can help you to fill out that report to the police.”
Buckner said he wants to increase diversity within the police department and said language concerns are one reason for that. He acknowledged that recruiting racial minorities to be officers is difficult, but he said bilingual dispatchers would be helpful, as well.
“If you know individuals who are fluent in Spanish,” he told the audience. “They are a U.S. citizen, and they have an interest in working in public safety, but they don’t want to carry a badge and gun, Communications is a great avenue to be able to do that.”
Buckner mentioned that many people in the Hispanic and African-American communities have a negative perception of the LRPD.
“Some of the mistrust that you have, some of the scars that you have, have been caused by the police department,” he stated. “We have not always been on the right foot.
Reta argued that the police department is not making enough of an effort to engage the Hispanic community, regardless of language differences. She pointed out that nobody from the department was present at a vigil for Castro-Alvarez the day after his murder. She suggested that Buckner and Mayor Mark Stodola appear on Spanish radio stations or give interviews to Spanish newspapers.
“There is no way that we can reach that, or break that gap if they don’t come straight to the community and talk to them,” she said.
Buckner said, while crime is up in each of the department’s three districts, the increase is lowest in the Southwest district, in part because people in that part of the city are most likely to work with officers. “Southwest is second to no one,” he stated, “when it comes to community engagement.”
According to statistics in Buckner’s presentation, as of July 31, violent crime is up 16 percent in southwest Little Rock compared to this time last year. Reta said Castro-Alvarez’s murder just added to the worry Spanish-speakers feel every day.
“The Hispanic community right now is afraid,” she said. “It’s afraid to walk, to work, to be late after work.”
Buckner told the audience that some people he has met during the “Chat with the Chief” sessions wonder why holding meetings has not reduced crime. His answer was that meetings such as these are not the answer in and of themselves.
“What matters is what you do when you leave here,” he said. “That’s the difference-maker. Because if we were going to Heaven or Hell based on Sunday, everybody would be in Heaven. Heaven is based upon Monday-Saturday. That’s what gets you into Hell. So, what’s important is what we do when we leave here, as a community.”