BLUFFTON, SC (WSAV) – Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing populations in the Lowcountry and Bluffton Police are working to better connect with that community.
15.5% of all people in Bluffton are Hispanic according to the last census.
This year those census numbers are expected to rise.
The challenge for police is getting help, services, and justice for a community that doesn’t always trust officers.
For officers on the beat building that trust starts with a conversation.
Officer Jose Martinez and Sgt Bonifacio Perez have now become friends with Elida Garcia Ramos. Ramos lives in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood near Bluffton, and a relationship has been built over multiple visits and talks.
It is part of Bluffton Police’s Community Policing strategy which is about much more than making arrests.
“You have to make those concerted efforts to speak and meet these families outside of just law enforcement matters,” said Officer Jose Martinez.
Speaking to those people in their native tongue only enhances that relationship.
“When you show up to a call or even on a traffic stop somebody is struggling to speak English to you,” explains Sgt. Perez. “and then you throw Spanish right back and you can see their face lights up. It’s like oh yes and that just makes the interaction that much better.”
“If you can’t actively communicate what you are feeling what you are trying to get out there you don’t know what to expect,”
Ms Ramos echoes the officer’s comments.
“There’s a lot of Hispanics here,” said Ramos in Spanish. “and a lot that haven’t learned English. That’s why it is necessary that you guys are here.”
Three Spanish speaking officers on the police roster, all charged with trying to teach people that officers are not the enemy.
“Everybody immediately sees a uniform and associates that with immigration, ICE,” said Perez. “Those are federal agencies. We are a local PD here. We are concerned about our citizens. That is part of the fear aspect, that blocks some people from coming forward reporting crimes depending on what their status is they are in fear to come forward.”
“We don’t dive into what somebody’s status. A victim is a victim. if there’s been a crime against them we want to do our best to solve that crime and to do everything we can to help them out.”
That help includes a special Spanish speaking tipline where someone can leave anonymous information or get a call back from officers like these when they need help.
When someone calls the Hispanic Hotline, an automated message will say, “Usted ha llamado a la línea anónima de la Policía de Bluffton. Por favor deje la información despues del tono. Si usted desea que un Oficial le llame en Español por favor deje su número de telefono, Gracias”
That means, “You have called the tip line for Bluffton Police. Please leave your information after the beep. If you want an Official to call you in Spanish, please leave your phone number, Thank You.”
The “Hispanic Hotline” can be reached at 1-843-706-7806.
But its the day to day, door to door work that these officers do which helps drive people to call.
“It affords us the abilities to build those relationships those partnerships with those communities to make sure the trust is there,” said Officer Martinez.
Officers here are working not just on their shifts, but on their own time to develop trust. Officers driving people to doctor’s appointments who don’t have transportation, or handing out supplies at much-needed food distribution sites for people affected by COVID-19.
“A lot of those families when those jobs went away they were unable to provide basic necessities like food and essentials to their kids,” said Martinez. “A number of us at the Bluffton Police Department got together and realized we had to work not just on the job but in our off times to make sure those needs were met.”
“Families that are in need of food, families that are in need of basic essentials,” says Officer Martinez. “Families that are in need of medical care medical treatment. So we have made sure they know we are a resource we are here for them.”
With so many jobs based on tourism, restaurants, and working in local homes, the Hispanic community has been hit harder than many during this Pandemic. Why it is so important for police, local charities, and churches to step up now more than ever.
“It affords us the abilities to build those relationships, those partnerships with those communities to make sure the trust is there,” said Martinez.
“Little by little by actions people start seeing that what we are doing is for the good for everybody,” said Sgt Perez.
“It is ensuring that people in our communities are taken care of no matter what the need is,” said Officer Martinez
Needs as simple as some muscle for the weekly food distribution site for the Church of the Cross.
“The whole community knows they can trust this police force. they know they aren’t going to be singled out because they are brown,” said Father Juan Rivera of Church of the Cross. “They know that these people are out in the community doing works of compassion and mercy because they love the community and they are investing in the lives of other people. “They know to curb crime they need to fight it from the beginning and that means winning the hearts of the people so that they can trust you.”
Bluffton is also making sure the Hispanic community knows what to do where a hurricane arrives.
It has made hurricane preparation and information videos in both English and Spanish.