Crime Suppression Officer Ken Ferguson of the Norcross Police Department talks with Hector Sanchez, 8, Michelle Chavez, 8, Marlem Cuatula, 8, Diana Cuatula, 3, and Alejandra Ibarra, 7, in hopes of gaining their trust and future cooperation. The city of Norcross has a 40 percent Hispanic population and many of the incidence and crimes in these communities are not reported. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Norcross Police reach out to hispanic population
The city of Norcross has a 40% hispanic population therefore the Norcross Police Department is reaching out to the hispanic community in hopes of gaining their trust.
NORCROSS — At a crawl, the Dodge Charger stalked a mustard-colored, low-rise apartment complex called Stanford Village, a nondescript community along Beaver Ruin Road.
Norcross police Officer Ken Ferguson, the laidback eight-year veteran behind the wheel, said he’s impressed by the aesthetic rebound the complex has made since gangs like the Latin Kings and MS-13 moved out, taking their graffiti habits with them. Under pines where gangsters used to meddle, flocks of kids chased soccer balls.
Two female apartment managers rolled up in a golf cart. Ferguson let down his window and said warmly, as if speaking to old friends, “What’re y’all doing?”
The driver replied: “We’ve been talking to two kids who caused the problem.”
The problem, as Ferguson already knew, is kids filching bicycles. And his conversation on that balmy afternoon was representative of his department’s broader efforts to interface with the Hispanic community, which now accounts for roughly 40 percent of the 16,000 residents in Norcross proper, according to the latest Census data. But police who work the city’s six square miles and seven apartment complexes believe the number is underreported, and that the percentage is higher.
Ferguson, a Stone Mountain native, has watched the immigrant kids in these apartments grow up. He’s become an aficionado of empanadas and meat-stuffed pupusas. He met his Guatemalan wife on the beat. And he’s an integral part of the bridge police are trying to build between mainstream Norcross and, in the words of the city’s police chief, the “parallel culture.”
While Ferguson speaks only passable Spanish, he’s a trusted face, and living proof that police can have good intentions.
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In its efforts to forge trust and build relationships with Hispanic residents, Norcross is a microcosm of communities across the country and Gwinnett County at large, where police have wrestled with language and cultural barriers for years. But in Norcross, where the concentration of Spanish-speaking residents is higher than other Gwinnett cities — and among the highest in Georgia — police officials think a change is long overdue. And they say time is of the essence.
In January, the police department launched a multifaceted Hispanic outreach program, using all channels they could think of to spread word that police are not to be feared, and that all crimes should be reported.
Hispanics are often the target of armed robberies, especially, because they’re known to carry cash and are reluctant to call the cops. In lieu of bank accounts, immigrants often carry their earnings on them, or keep life-savings under mattresses at home. They unwittingly bait themselves.
After six robberies in 2011, and an uptick to 11 last year, Norcross police had already logged 20 reported robberies through May this year. Police Chief Warren Summers says nearly all of the victims were Hispanic.
The number of unreported crimes — ranging from car break-ins to home invasions — is anyone’s guess, which undermines police efforts to allocate officers where criminals lurk. The chief says catching those who prey on cultures that sometimes live in the shadows is in the best interest of everyone.
“It’s a very short walk from that side of Buford Highway to this side,” said Summers, sitting in his office on the more quaint and historic side of town. “If we don’t do something about the crime going on, it’s going to spill over.”
So far, “doing something” has forced police into uncharted networking territory, though Spanish-speakers from across Latin America have long had a presence in Norcross, reflected in the city’s global collage of storefronts.
Beyond face-to-face interactions, police have distributed bilingual fliers at apartments and churches; partnered with Hispanic media; showed up at gatherings as disparate as immigration meetings and a Cinco de Mayo festival; maintained a police Facebook page in Spanish and made regular appearances on radio stations such as La Raza.
What’s more, in the course of a year, the department has more than doubled its Spanish-speaking officer ranks to seven (of 41 sworn officers). The chief, who’s taking online Spanish courses himself, wants 20 officers fluent in Spanish soon. In recruiting, Summers has even scouted the local McDonald’s, which he’s heard is fertile ground for fluent Spanish speakers.
“People have asked, ‘What’s this got to do with police work?’” Summers said. “It’s got everything to do with police work. It’s community policing at its basic level.”
The chief’s “secret weapon” in the initiative is bilingual Detective Arelis Rivera, a former Chicago police officer and teacher. Though the outreach has been consistent and far-reaching, she said progress has been slow, due in part to the population’s deep-seated distrust of law enforcement and fear of deportation.
“The people are amazed at these functions that the chief is actually speaking to them,” she said.
Jeffrey Tapia, Latin American Association executive director, said Norcross joins departments such as Atlanta police and newly established Brookhaven police in efforts to diversify its ranks with Hispanic officers.
“I think they’re trying to make sure their police force is reflective of the community,” Tapia said. “I really applaud their efforts … they’re being very proactive.”
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Norcross’ high concentration of Hispanics has lured in criminals before.
In October 2011, five alleged members of the Bloods street gang ventured into the Sunset Hills subdivision, an established neighborhood of longtime residents near downtown. The crew, looking for vulnerable immigrants, instead burglarized garages and more than a dozen vehicles, until an alert resident called police about 2 a.m., prompting their arrests. None of the suspects were from Gwinnett.
“They said they were coming to Norcross to victimize Hispanics,” police spokesman Capt. Brian Harr said at the time. “They thought Norcross would be a good place for that.”
Outside of domestic flare-ups and rare instances of gang activity, Hispanics don’t typically cause crimes in Norcross, the chief said. Summers was hired to lead the department in early 2012, but it wasn’t until “the robbery season” — the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when cash for gifts is at a premium — that he noticed a spike in the victimization of Hispanics.
Gwinnett County police noticed a similar trend in 2009, in the same general area of the county. The launch of Gwinnett’s 287 (g) program, which initiates deportation proceedings at the county jail for illegal immigrants charged with crimes, was thought to have contributed to Hispanics’ general unwillingness to cooperate with police, though they were being robbed at an alarming rate.
In response, county officers launched a large-scale initiative to interface with apartment managers and deliver fliers in both English and Spanish, discouraging residents from carrying cash, walking alone or loitering in dark parking lots.
Last year, Gwinnett police advertised open positions on Hispanic radio stations in hopes of attracting bilingual recruits. They also launched a crime prevention program focused on apartments that’s led by a Spanish-speaking officer.
Those efforts could be paying off.
“Anecdotally, it seems that the Hispanic community is more willing to approach police than they have been in past years,” said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith, “but there is certainly still some hesitance in some cases.”
Police officials are quick to draw a line between their objectives — to protect citizens and squelch crime — and those of federal immigration authorities such as ICE. But it’s a distinction that’s traditionally been lost in translation.
“Immigration is another issue — it’s not my job,” Summers stressed. “It just doesn’t matter to me that some of them may not be here legally … they’re still people. The more I do this, the more I find that they’re just really nice folks.”
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A former prosecutor, Summers has spent the majority of his career elsewhere in metro Atlanta, including stints in Conyers and Covington. From its Buford Highway bodegas to bohemian downtown cafes, Norcross “has a certain flavor to it that these other towns just don’t have,” he said. “It’s really interesting.”
The Norcross Business Association doesn’t categorize businesses by ethnicity, so it’s difficult to get an accurate read on how prevalent Hispanic enterprises are in the city. Mary Hester, NBA president, said Hispanic businesses run the gamut, from small shops to engineering firms, and many have been established for years.
Her agency is partnering with police to reach the Hispanic community and enlist businesses as members.
“As a business people, we understand changing markets and shifting demographics,” Hester said. “To stay relevant, we must change as our community changes.”
For inspiration, Summers has looked a few miles south to Doraville.
The DeKalb County city of 8,000 counts about 50 percent of its population as Hispanic, along with a menagerie of other cultures. Doraville police Chief John King said bilingual officers, flyer distribution and Internet campaigns have limitations. “It’s one of those issues that a lot of agencies struggle with,” King said. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s very difficult in this state right now, especially with immigration dialogues being so polarized.”
King cited one tactic as a particular success: He’s sent officers into schools to read to fourth- and fifth-graders (the ideal demographic, he said). Good students are rewarded with jail tours and chances to meet police dogs. They become what King has coined “the in-betweeners.”
“They’re armed with knowledge that they can take home,” he said.
Looking ahead, Norcross police have planned a first-ever Hispanic Citizens Police Academy, taught in Spanish on Tuesday nights between July and September. The intention is to school residents on the basics of police work — and to initiate a rapport.
“We’re trying to just make citizens know that they’re welcome,” Summers said, “and that’s the first step to building trust.”
Back on the street, Officer Ferguson relayed the story of how he’d met his wife: She was working at a hotel in his jurisdiction. And she was later robbed.
In another complex called Audubon Creek, kids spotted the cruiser and swarmed in. One boy in a red U.S. Polo shirt wanted a souvenir: “Do you have any stickers?” he asked the officer.
“Not today,” Ferguson said, “fresh out.”
Then Ferguson spotted a pudgy boy in the back of the group, turning away.
“Just smile — don’t be shy,” the officer said. “What you shyin’ away for?”
The boy turned around, smiled bashfully and hunched his shoulders.