A Blueprint for Hispanic Outreach

Click here to get this post in PDF

by Lori Madden, PhD

Farias 3 hispanic outreach officer

William (Billy) Farias is not what one would call “diplomatic.”  He speaks his mind without reservation.  This is contrary to the indirect mode of communication that most Latin Americans use, so when the Clearwater, Florida police department chose him as the liaison officer to head their new Hispanic outreach initiative in 2000, he faced a challenge.

Officer Farias describes Clearwater’s problem at the time as “sweeping the dirt under the rug until the pile grew too high to deal with” as the Hispanic immigrant presence grew ever larger and the city’s agencies had no process to manage it. [1]  However, this bilingual American with Cuban and Puerto Rican roots has a special talent.  He is “simpático,” or sociable.  This is important because Hispanics are a people-focused culture.  Farias will reach out to anyone to talk about anything, and his word is his personal pledge.  Also a cross-cultural trainer, Farias loves to share his experiences working with the Clearwater police department.

Farias’ personal story dissects Clearwater’s ‘from-the-ground-up’ approach to serving a changing community.  Farias was among a handful of bilingual officers in Pinellas county, Florida when a rash of Mexican immigrants moved into the city.  As in many other U.S. cities and counties, the growth of immigrant communities can start with a single immigrant.  Farias recounts the case of one highlands Mexican man who dreamed of a beach vacation in Florida.  After saving enough money for a trip to Clearwater Beach, the man decided to stay.  As Farias describes the situation, “the wages earned in Mexico could be as low as $4.50 per day whereas in Clearwater they could earn up to $10.00 per hour in the service industry.  This could include medical benefits as well as vacation time and sick leave.”  He continues, “at the beach they can work indoors and only 8 hours per day.  They get uniforms and can work as much overtime as is available sending millions of dollars back home each year.” [1]  Eventually, the man from Hidalgo moved more of his family to the U.S. and news of attractive work opportunities in Clearwater spread back home in Hidalgo, Mexico.  In no time, there was a vibrant hidalguense community in a resort city with no plan to deal with Spanish-speaking residents.

Through networking, officers were able to identify a wealthy Mexican-American businessman in Clearwater who happened to also have roots in Hidalgo.  Convincing this individual to get involved was a coup for the city.  The businessman’s connections with Hidalgo government officials encouraged Hidalgo politicos and the Mexican embassy to sponsor international initiatives, starting with extending Farias an invitation to visit Mexico.

Farias told his police chief, “I have to go to Hidalgo!” [1]  He realized the importance of empathizing with the reality that the immigrants lived.  He stayed with a rural family in a leaf-roofed hut among cactus, sheep, cattle and donkeys; ate food cooked over miner’s coal in a hole in the ground; and slept on wooden slats.  He met all manner of people from the governor down and returned to Clearwater with official commitments.

Growth in outreach became exponential.  The Clearwater YWCA provided office space for a Mexican consulate office.  Funding from Mexico supported Hidalgo-Clearwater cross-border initiatives and a soccer league.  Numerous outreach officers in civilian clothes reached out to forge relationships of support with immigrants where they congregated:  at soccer matches, local churches and migrant camps.  Farias became so adept at training fellow officers in Hispanic cultural sensitivity that he was invited to provide training out of state, including Mexican border states.  Farias, Sergio Fidelis, [2] and other officers had monthly meetings with Mexican community leaders at the outreach center.  Officer Fidelis also gave crime prevention workshops for local immigrants.  The crown gem was Clearwater’s “Apoyo Hispano” program at the local YWCA Hispanic Outreach Center.  It established such services as bilingual daycare, English as a Second Language classes, interpreter training services, victim advocacy, youth programs, and a multi-purpose training center. [3]

In 2008, Clearwater’s Apoyo Hispano outreach program pivoted into an independent non-profit agency under CEO Sandra Lyth.  The new InterCultural Advocacy Institute sits next to the police department and operates with funding from the JWB (Juvenile Welfare Board).  Its focus is to provide interpretation services and victim advocacy, including free legal services to help immigrants navigate a path to citizenship.  “They said it wouldn’t work,” said Ms. Lyth. [4]   Many did not believe immigrants would brave entering a center so close to a police department, but to date 26,000 people have been served.  Lyth credits the “front line” involvement of the Deputy Police Chief as the secret to their success.  Too often innovative law enforcement projects are delegated to lower-tier staff without the authority to move things forward. [4]

Clearwater was able to manage their immigration situation due to intelligence from their boots on the ground: [5]  bilingual officers caring enough to ask each immigrant they approached about their individual stories.  Just as important, the Clearwater case proves law enforcement can be a catalyst to success, but it doesn’t have to be solely responsible for funding.  Grants may have provided the seed money for the outreach initiative, but then the Mexican government contributed resources and eventually, the Hispanic Outreach Center branched off from the YWCA to  become an independent non-profit organization.  The coalition between immigrant community, law enforcement, and foreign local government is what makes Clearwater department’s efforts so unique, and a creative idea for implementation by other law enforcement agencies.

The Problem

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, representing over 16% of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census.  New immigrant communities are cropping up in areas far from the border states.  Authorities in jurisdictions as disperse as Portland, Oregon, New Haven, Connecticut, and Clark county, Ohio have had to quickly mobilize to train their officers how to manage an unexpected influx of Latino immigrants.  As U.S. population demographics change, so must law enforcement agencies react to the diversity in their districts.

The Solution

The solution does not have to be as arduous as making the workforce bilingual.  Occupational Spanish-language training helps, but to truly manage situations involving non-English speakers, officers would have to study for years to become adequately functional in a second language.  Fortunately, law enforcement officers do not have to be bilingual to communicate successfully, increase cooperation and solve crimes in Latino communities. They can overcome the language barrier by learning to improve their “cultural IQ.”

No one would dispute that to do this, training is key.  “…As the dynamics of the police role in society have become increasingly complex,” states criminal justice expert, Professor Thomas Jurkanin, “…the quality of law enforcement in society is directly commensurate with the degree and quality of training provided to law enforcement personnel at all levels of the organization.” [6]  To be effective, cross-cultural competency training needs to be more than the typical diversity training seminar that merely satisfies a state or federal requirement.  Training needs to be supported by administration as a critical priority; it must be comprehensive and memorable enough to “stick;” and it must be targeted to officers ready to apply the lessons on the job.

The goals of cross-cultural training targeted to law enforcement should be practical ones.  For example, police officers and sheriffs’ deputies can benefit from learning the following strategies:

  •  Choose the right individual as outreach liaison.

Officer Farias’ story is a good example of how an individual advocate can make or break an initiative, especially when dealing with the Hispanic community.  Hispanics relate to individuals who earn their trust over any institution.  Even after he retired from the Clearwater police department, Mexican officials continue to contact Farias instead of the department when they have an issue to be resolved.  It takes a long time to gain traction and any gains won by an outreach advocate can quickly unravel when he or she leaves the position.  There always should be a succession plan.  It is wise to choose the next best candidate for the job and ask the outreach advocate to introduce his or her successor to influential members of the Hispanic community.  They should work together until the community feels comfortable with the transition.

  • Applying leverage to get the cooperation of Hispanic witnesses, informants, and suspects.

leverage_symbol“Leverage” here means the ability to convince civilians to talk to the authorities by respecting Latino cultural priorities.  If officers understand what is most important to the Latinos in their communities, then they can appeal to their sensibilities to elicit their cooperation.  In a machista society, for example, a good tactic is to avoiding embarrassing a man in front of his girlfriend.  Parents will be especially sensitive to threats against their children and will choose to protect them.  Since the family is the most important priority in Hispanic societies, asking how an uncooperative suspect’s dependents will fare with him or her in jail will have an impact.  Latinos are also people of faith, so appealing to religion is another viable strategy.

  • Interpreting body language.

Due to the concentrated numbers of Hispanic immigrant groups in U.S. localities today, Spanish-speaking immigrant groups are less likely to adapt to English than previous immigrant groups.  Monolingual officers face a language barrier.  The linguistic character of the Spanish language doesn’t make it easy, either.  When Spanish speakers are calm, they speak in an even rhythm.  When they are excited, they speak very fast…in the same even rhythm.  There is no variance in stress or intonation as in English to help non-Spanish speakers guess whether the speaker is angry, sad, happy or afraid, from their speech pattern.  Instead, the English-speaking officer must learn to interpret body language.

Ex-FBI interrogator Joe Navarro recounts that when he first arrived in the U.S. from Cuba as a small boy, he didn’t speak much English.  Since he did not understand much of what he heard, he began to observe facial expressions and interpret body language as a coping mechanism.  This talent in interpreting body language helped him later in his investigative career. [7]  If one extrapolates this lesson to other non-native speakers of English, then Latin American immigrants will be receptive observers of police body language.  First responders should be aware that they can communicate meaning with their expression, their tone, and their gestures as well as with their words.  Cross-cultural training can help officers use this to their advantage.  Looking an apprehensive immigrant in the eyes and smiling, as opposed to eyeing him up and down in a body scan, can help put him at ease.  Conversely, officers would benefit from learning which non-verbal cues are universal (or visceral) reactions and which cues are learned responses, meaning different things to different cultural groups. For some Meso-American groups, gazing downwards as they address authority figures may feel like they are acting guilty, but it is actually a sign of deference.  A lesson in cultural-specific gestures is especially useful in situations where communication is hampered by poor language skills.


An innocent gesture in the U.S. can be a vulgar one in other cultures.


  • Successfully networking in Latino communities by understanding cultural values and learning the social graces.

communications_symbolCommunity outreach is essential in Latino immigrant neighborhoods to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of this target group.  Hispanic cultures emphasize the value of interpersonal relationships with individuals over institutions.  The community police officer who has successfully embraced and been accepted by his or her Latino neighborhood has more influence over the residents than any institution or law.  For Latinos, people are not interchangeable parts, so it’s best to assign the best candidates to be the permanent community policing officers or outreach advocates in a neighborhood and give them the best training.  Education about differences in cultural values will help prepare the officers to ingratiate themselves with Hispanic community members.

Similarly, identifying the right representative and providing him or her with appropriate education also applies to networking with local neighborhood, social, scholastic and political groups related to Latino communities.  Learning appropriate social protocol will improve the non-Hispanic officer’s chances of success when representing his or her agency in meetings, seminars, social events, and even when liaisoning with law enforcement in Latin American countries.  Diplomacy means knowing how to properly greet Hispanics, knowing which are appropriate topics of conversation, following dining protocol, understanding correct behavior in social settings, and anticipating cultural expectations.  Latinos won’t form partnerships with faceless institutions.  They will, however, form allegiances with someone they have learned to trust.

  • Educating immigrants of the laws, their rights, and how to seek help.

law_bookPublic urination, drinking alcohol outdoors from open containers, truancy… these are a few problem areas that get the unacculturated [8] immigrant into trouble with the U.S. justice system.  These misdemeanors are unenforced in Latin America. First responders, outreach advocates and community law enforcement units can help social agencies and community groups distribute bilingual materials to educate immigrants.  Hispanic female victims of domestic violence are especially vulnerable since culturally, Latino men are given latitude to rule over their families.  Cross-cultural trainees will benefit from developing culturally consistent strategies to educate immigrant women about their rights and options under U.S. law.  The more law enforcement knows about social mores, cultural behaviors and legalities in Latin America, the better they can anticipate problems, inform about options, and make referrals to appropriate agencies.

  • Offering language training for monolingual officers, enlisting the aid of bilingual community members, enabling bilingual officers to assist colleagues, and implementing initiatives to recruit officers from among Latino communities.

The obvious solution to language problems is to train officers to speak Spanish.  Even a clumsy attempt at practicing Spanish with Latinos is appreciated—those who struggle to learn English tend to be very tolerant of other language learners.  Showing an interest in one’s language and culture encourages positive relations.  But only the most dedicated and linguistically gifted officers can survive the commitment necessary to become proficient in Spanish.  So enlisting the assistance of bilingual officers to fill this gap is another option.  However, although proficiency in Spanish is useful, it doesn’t guarantee success.  Latinos will prefer communicating with officers who have earned their loyalty regardless of their language skills.  Thus, cultural proficiency is even more important in eliciting the cooperation and collaboration of Hispanics.  The best of both worlds is a bilingual officer trained to be culturally sensitive.  Neighborhood law enforcement officers trusted by immigrants serve as positive role models for young people when they choose careers.  A corollary benefit to positive interaction between officers and Latino residents is eventual recruitment of young bilingual and bicultural locals into the ranks of law enforcement.

There is little need to reinvent the wheel.  Police and sheriffs’ departments are well advised to seek successful models of cooperative relationships with Latino communities and adopt some of these for themselves.  The “VIPS” program (Volunteers in Police Service) initiated by the Tulsa, Oklahoma police department offers unlimited ride-alongs to bilingual volunteers from Hispanic neighborhoods who then help interpret for the patrol officers.  The police department in Durham, North Carolina lost to local residents in a soccer match challenge with the ultimate goal of improving social relations with an otherwise incommunicative Hispanic immigrant community. [9]  One of the initiatives of the International Relations Unit (IRU) of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department in North Carolina was to promote banking programs among Latino civilians to reduce robberies.  (Too many immigrants carry large amounts of cash on their persons because they don’t have bank accounts.)  Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Latino Teenage Citizens Police Academy encourages Latino recruitment into their local police department and the Hispanic Illinois Law Enforcement Association (HISLA) has reached out to poor Hispanic families at Christmas with toys, on Thanksgiving with food baskets, and more strategically, with college scholarships for Latinos with good academic standing, leadership skills and proven community involvement. [10]  This last initiative is a strategic one not just for law enforcement recruitment potential, but also because recipients will become ‘good will’ ambassadors with influence over the Latino community.

The Benefits

Some may argue that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants living in the margins, are a drain on the U.S. system.  They need resources—housing assistance, subsidized education, free diapers.  Farias advocates to his fellow officers that assimilating immigrants into the community benefits everyone.  They transition from recipients to contributors.  Sandra Lyth agrees that integrating immigrants into the community—and not just as victims—will encourage more responsibility.  Certainly, open communications between immigrant residents and law enforcement increases the reporting of crimes and crime resolution.  The “to protect and serve” motto applies to all, regardless of their origins or their immigration status.

In conclusion, law enforcement departments can focus on all sorts of special outreach programs, collaborative projects, and educational initiatives to close the communications and trust gap between them and the Hispanic community.  There are police and sheriffs’ departments with measurable success in improving relations with their ethnic communities to share with other departments.  But the key to success in each case is a culturally informed workforce.  The best resources for investment are human resources!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

[1] From a personal interview the author had with officer Farias on August 22, 2013 in Brooksville, FL.

[2] Officer Sergio Fidelis is the current Clearwater Hispanic Outreach liaison.

[3] For its outreach initiatives, the Clearwater police department received the Rocky Pomerance Award from the Florida Police Chiefs’ Association in 2004 and was recognized as a semi-finalist for the Webber Seavey Award in 2005.  For the Clearwater outreach progression, see http://www.clearwaterpolice.org/hispanic/chronology.asp.  They created an instructional DVD with their local Regional Community Policing Institute (RCPI) documenting the best practices of these community policing partnerships, available for duplication through the RCPI.  Request a copy by contacting the department at police@myclearwater.com.

[4]  From a phone interview with Sandra Lyth on November 5, 2013.

[5] For Clearwater, the bilingual “boots on the ground” included Lt. Torres, Sgt. Cosme, Det. Carasquillo, Officers Stevrak, Rodriguez, Phillips, Muñoz, Illich-Hailey, Bailey, Farias and Fidelis.

[6] Thomas J. Jurkanin, Police Education and Training: An Intelligence-Led Future, in Police Chief Magazine, Nov. 2011, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=2527&issue_id=112011 (accessed May 10, 2013).

[7] Mr. Navarro recounted this anecdote in an interview on April 24, 2012 in Tampa, FL.  Joe Navarro is author of many books on interpreting body ‘tells’ including What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, Harper Collins, New York, 2008.

[8] The term “unacculturated” refers to first generation immigrants.  Acculturated Hispanics are those who have grown up in the U.S. but very often are bilingual and continue to feel an affinity to their cultural roots. These tend to identify with their nation of origin and conservative values, but as consumers their preferences are no different from mainstream American ones.

[9] Mark Sherwood, Developing a Multifaceted Approach to Hispanic Outreach, in Police Chief Magazine, March, 2011, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=2337&issue_id=32011 (accessed September 15, 2012).

[10] Samuel Walker, Leigh Herbst and Dawn Irlbeck, The Police Outreach to the Hispanic / Latino Community: A Survey of Programs and Activities. A Report by the Police Professionalism Initiative (University of Nebraska at Omaha) and the National Latino Peace Officers Association, November 2002, pp. 3-11, http://www.unomaha.edu/criminaljustice/PDF/hispanicoutreach.pdf (accessed July 17, 2013).

Copyright © 2014 by SLS Publications, LLC®.