Crime Wave Highlights Barriers Between Police and Hispanic Community

Police officials and residents discuss crime targeting the Hispanic community at a meeting at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. (Source: Mary Scott Hodgin, WBHM)

Luis, who asked us not to use his last name, had just gotten off work one Friday night late last year. He and his family were making dinner outside at their trailer park in Pinson.

“We were heating up the food, a few tacos, when two African-American men arrived with assault weapons,” Luis says. “They threw us to the ground. I have it all on video. My wife was pregnant. They threw her on the ground. No one could do anything.”

It was payday at work and Luis had about $1,200 in cash on him. The men robbed him and fled. Luis was one of several residents who recently shared their stories at a forum at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA). The event was organized in response to a recent surge in robberies targeting the Hispanic community in Birmingham.

Police officials from Birmingham and Jefferson County were also in attendance. They say there is a pattern to these crimes, which are often armed robberies that take place on the weekend in trailer parks. They say criminals may target Hispanic residents because they are more likely to have cash on hand and they are less likely to call the police. A law enforcement officer at the meeting asked residents not to be afraid.

“We are here to make sure that everyone understands that these (crimes), first and foremost, should be reported to the appropriate agency, because law enforcement wants to help,” the officer said.

This recent crime wave has increased awareness about the disconnect between the Hispanic community and the police. It is a problem throughout the Birmingham area, but it is concentrated in some places. One example is Lipscomb, a small town near Bessemer.

Alfredo Torres lives in a trailer park there and says several of his neighbors have been attacked in recent months, some in broad daylight.

“They feel scared calling the police,” Torres says. “That’s why we had a lot of numbers of robberies here, because people were not reporting it to the police. They were scared of being reported themselves since they are undocumented, some of them.”

And even if residents do call the police, communication is a problem. Torres says most of his neighbors do not speak English. He says that is also the case in a nearby trailer park. Mareshah Moses, police chief of Lipscomb, says no one in his police department speaks Spanish.

“That’s what we really, really need help with,” Moses says.

He is not alone. Most police departments in the Birmingham area do not have professional interpreters. Some have a few bilingual police officers. Kaemi Velez, a victim and court advocate at HICA, says it is common for police to rely on friends or family, even kids, to interpret. She says she often sees incomplete or incorrect police reports because of the language barrier.

“If you have a lot of people who speak Spanish in your area, you find this as a need and you prioritize,” Velez says.

Velez says there are options, like call-in interpretation apps, that police departments can invest in. She says HICA staffers also help interpret for police, but they are not available all the time. Velez says this is a key issue because if Hispanic residents don’t have a way to communicate, they won’t feel comfortable reaching out to the police.

“Law enforcement wants Hispanics to report,” Velez says, “but we also want law enforcement to understand why they fear so much.”

Velez says some police departments are starting to recognize this. After the meeting at HICA, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office started a program last month to train its officers to better interact with Hispanic residents. The department is also training officers to know what to do when they encounter someone who speaks little English.

And the Hispanic community is talking more about the issue. Luis, who was attacked in Pinson, says residents have to report crime to prevent it.

You can’t stay quiet,” Luis says. “Obviously you have to talk.”

Luis called the police after he was robbed and used broken English to file a report. He and his family have since moved to a different trailer park near Gardendale that they hope is safer.

See surveillance video from Luis’ attack provided by Luis.