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Spanish-speaking town hall seeks to improve local communication

Despite carefully targeted advertising, the Spanish-speaking town hall July 19 at Centro Cultural in Cornelius drew just six attendees, far fewer than the average crowd of 30 to 35 people.

Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake said the Centro Cultural students who often help fill the audience were away on a field trip.

“Even though there were only a few people, that’s OK,” said Police Chief Gene Moss. “We’ll be back. We’re patient.”

The meeting, led by Moss, Drake and Cornelius Police Sgt. Al Roque, focused on introducing the new leaders of the Cornelius Police Department, which merged with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office July 1. It also addressed some common miscommunications between community members and police.

Cornelius resident Elias Beltran suggested the police presence at the town hall may have scared away some people who feared being checked for citizenship status.

Moss said this is a common misperception Latinos have of interaction with the police. Hispanic drivers, for example, often misinterpret a request for paperwork after being pulled over to mean immigration paperwork, when the officer actually wants a driver’s license and proof of car insurance.

Roque said a fear of the police often comes from Mexican immigrants who may have experienced police corruption in Mexico and as a result mistrust interactions with all officers.

At the end of the town hall session, Beltran said he was disappointed other Spanish speakers didn’t attend.

“This has been helpful,” he told the panel in Spanish. “We’re appreciative that you’re here to provide information and not intimidate.”

Drake suggested bringing an Immigration & Customs Enforcement official to answer questions at the next town hall, and promised to make it clear in promotional materials that the official would not check anyone’s legal status while there.

“That would be great,” Beltran said.

The town hall discussion also focused on domestic violence and the fact that people are sometimes afraid to call during domestic disputes for fear the police will take the family breadwinner to jail.

Roque acknowledged that if there is injury, police are required to make an arrest. But Moss said officers’ main goal is safety.

Moss encouraged the small crowd to spread the word that the city wants more Spanish speakers in attendance at events, including city council meetings.

Roque, who speaks Spanish, said people who come to city council meetings and need a translator can approach him. He added that he also plans to start posting in Spanish on social media to engage the Latino community.

With Roque, the Cornelius Police Department will once again have two Spanish-speaking officers in September when Miguel Monico returns after completing training with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Cpl. Mark Trost also speaks Spanish, although less fluently.

The department lost a Spanish-speaking officer when former Police Chief Paul Rubenstein retired in February 2013 amid departmental turmoil.

With Latinos accounting for more than 50 percent of the city’s population, officers who know Spanish are crucial to effective policing.

Maria Aguilar, Latino Outreach Coordinator for the Cornelius Library, translated the town hall discussion for the audience. It was the city’s sixth Spanish-speaking town hall in the past two years.



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