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    Police pushing Hispanic center

    Often seen as the enemy, the Clearwater police have joined the YWCA in making sure a Hispanic center becomes a reality.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 29, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- When she first arrived in America four years ago, Zorada Santiago had a single and rapid reaction when she saw a police officer.

    Run.

    Santiago was here illegally then, and she feared an officer would boot her back to Mexico.

    But four years later, Santiago has learned English, is earning her high-school equivalency degree, and is working part-time at a McDonald's. She also is legal.

    But if there is anything holding the single mother back, it is that she is forced to rely on a patchwork of friends to watch her two boys, ages 3 and 10. She can't afford day care, and when friends can't watch the kids, she can't make it to classes or work.

    But that could change next year, when a Hispanic outreach center may open in downtown Clearwater. The center will offer a myriad of services to local Hispanics, including affordable day care.

    "I can't wait until they open that center for the day care," Santiago, 29, said last week. "Day care is very expensive now."

    The irony, perhaps, is that the people helping to get that day care started are the very people Santiago ran from four years ago.

    The police.

    * * *

    The 2000 census showed what police officers working the streets and neighborhoods of Clearwater already had noticed: A lot of Hispanic people have moved here.

    The census found about 9,000 Hispanics in Clearwater, or 9 percent of the city's entire population. That was up from 3 percent only a year earlier.

    And that number is probably low because of underreporting. City officials estimate the number of Hispanics in Clearwater may be closer to 14,000.

    Many don't know English well and have an inherent distrust of anyone in a police uniform. Blame it on experience with corrupt cops in Mexico or a fear of deportation, but some local Hispanics would rather run from a police officer than ask a uniform for help; and they wouldn't dare call the police if they were a victim of a crime.

    That, and the language barrier, creates distance between the police and Hispanic residents, particularly with a police department that has out of 250 officers only six who speak fluent Spanish.

    Other city departments were having similar problems.

    Police Chief Sid Klein started reacting to the swelling Hispanic population two years ago.

    His department started applying for grants for crime-prevention and translation programs that targeted the Hispanic community. Meetings were held with Hispanic community leaders. Deputy Chief Dewey Williams was sent to Hidalgo, Mexico, where many Clearwater Hispanics come from, to learn about the people there.

    Interpreters were placed on-call, and soon were able to respond to any incident in which a translator is needed within 20 minutes.

    Klein appointed an officer to serve as a liaison to the Hispanic community. That officer attends soccer games and Hispanic celebrations, where he strives to form trust between police and Hispanics.

    * * *

    But now Klein and the YWCA of Tampa Bay plan to jointly open a Hispanic Community Outreach Center at a building on Franklin Street that was once a day care center.

    The plan: To provide not only child care, but interpreter and victim advocacy services for local Hispanics, along with language classes that not only will teach Hispanics how to speak English but any city employees, particularly police officers, to speak Spanish.

    "We're really excited about this," said Sandra Lyth, deputy director of the YWCA of Tampa Bay. "It's so needed."

    The 6,500-square-foot building also will house the department's Hispanic liaison officer, and offer office space to the Mexican Consulate and the government of Hidalgo.

    The plan is part of Project Next Step, a series of police initiatives that Klein says will take community policing to the next level.

    "This program deals with a cultural neighborhood," Williams said.

    The brunt of the services at the center will be provided by the YWCA, which already serves the Hispanic population in Pinellas County.

    But Klein is proposing the city approve an innovative lease agreement, in which the former day care center on Franklin Street, which is owned by the city, be leased to the YWCA for $1 per year.

    The police department will kick in $50,000 from drug seizure money to renovate the building, while the YWCA will offer up to half of its child-care spots to city employees, giving them a safety net that will keep the day care program afloat if there isn't initially a lot of interest among local Hispanics.

    Klein was to bring his proposal to city commissioners and ask commissioners to approve a five-year lease with the YWCA. He expects the measure will pass Thursday, and hopes the center will be ready to open in mid 2002.

    "I don't know of any problems that have been raised," Klein said.

    The YWCA and the police department also won a $166,000 grant from the Allegany Franciscan Foundation Tampa Bay Inc. for the project.

    "We're very proud of these organizations and think they are going to do some great work," said Joanne Olvera Lighter, president and CEO of the organization, which has given $12-million in grants to organizations in the Tampa Bay area in the last 21/2 years. "We were impressed by the work they have done and their desire to assist the community in a very positive way."

    The program will be extended next year with the help of another $65,000 federal grant, and officials plan to approach the Allegany Franciscan Foundation for more help.

    But they might not get it.

    "We have said we would consider it," Lighter said. "We are not a sustaining funder, and they are quite aware of that. We've made no promises."

    Still, the YWCA plans to fund the program when that funding expires, and Klein said any costs absorbed by the department in the future will be minimal and worth it.

    Perhaps the most ambitious of Klein's plans is to establish a pilot immigration program that would be the first of its kind in the nation.

    Klein would like to allow Hispanics to apply for legal documentation at the center. Under current law, the only way an immigrant can receive documentation is to go back to Mexico and apply for it there.

    That's an enormous burden, and one reason Hispanics run from the cops, Klein said.

    "I think that's an admirable goal, and I think the involvement of the Mexican Consulate provides the basis for some kind of government discussion about that," Lyth said. "The only way it will happen is from pressure from groups like the Clearwater Police Department who see it as a social safety issue."

    Santiago, the Hispanic single mother awaiting the day care service, said police and YWCA programs are fueling progress, though she said some Hispanics are still afraid of the police and won't report crime.

    "A lot of my friends won't do anything," she said. But with assurances from the YWCA, "we're not scared anymore."

    Santiago, who would like to work at the center after earning her degree, says she can feel the police department and the Hispanic community are moving closer together.

    "Little by little," she said, "there's more trust."

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