Simply being able to talk to Paso Robles’ Spanish-speaking community — without the confusion of language barriers — is one of the main desires that a sampling of the city’s Hispanic population voiced Wednesday on qualities they want to see in a new police chief.
The sparsely attended event illustrated a largely unspoken divide in Paso Robles, one in which some say Hispanics don’t feel welcomed by police or city officials.
“As a Hispanic community, we feel targeted,” event translator Eloisa Medina summarized from the crowd.
The inability of most Paso Robles Police Department officers to speak Spanish compounds the problem, attendees said.
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“To approach an officer is hard as it is, but to not be understood is a whole other thing. It would help to see a friendly face that you know in the community,” said attendee Maria Valdivia, a teacher’s aide with Paso Robles Public Schools.
Someone who is inspiring, courageous, makes a real effort to meet people in the community, has experience in working with diversity, is qualified and reaches out to schools and parents was also on the audience’s wish list.
Overall, the new police chief must strive to bring stability to the force after several recent upsets including allegations against the former chief, years of budget cuts and gang issues.
Hispanics represent about 30 percent of Paso Robles’ population of approximately 30,000. But Wednesday evening’s event at Georgia Brown Elementary School only drew about 20 people. About 60 people attended the first forum at City Hall earlier this month.
The forum was the second in a pair of meetings designed to compile a profile of community desires that the city’s search firm, Los Gatos-based William Avery & Associates Inc., will use to match police chief candidates to the city.
The city expects to hire a new chief by the end of the year.
If a bilingual chief cannot be found, the group said the new leader should at least work to hire more Spanish-speaking officers and staff.
California Rural Legal Assistance community worker Ruth Angulo said that she’s helped numerous residents file police reports in Paso Robles because of language barriers. The last incident occurred this week on a report of domestic violence.
“They tried four times to do it and no one was available to translate (until the fourth attempt). Which I think is pitiful and illegal,” she said.
Valdivia agreed, calling the situation a “continuous” problem.
“They don’t feel like they can get help,” Valdivia said.
Interim police Chief Robert Burton, who attended the meeting, said the department currently has a few Spanish speakers on staff.
“But in my opinion, it’s not enough,” Burton said.
Burton elaborated Thursday that the department has four patrol officers, two reserve patrol officers and one records clerk who can speak Spanish.
His department is recruiting new officers, some of whom would be bilingual.
Just the chance for Hispanic residents to be heard Wednesday was paramount, attendees said.
“The mere fact that they did this meeting, we appreciate it. There’s a lot of times that the city makes decisions without taking into account the Latino population,” attendee Jesus Reyuoso said in Spanish through a translator.
Reyuoso lives in San Miguel but said he spends a lot of time in Paso Robles for work and shopping.
Paso Robles Housing Authority Director Armando Corella hopes that the new chief can continue to help the community find ways to keep youth from getting involved in gangs so their first interaction with police isn’t getting arrested.
That will help build trust and integrity between police and the community, he said, which is important in Hispanic culture.
Many attendees also asked that the new chief promote more gang-awareness programs for parents, such as teaching them not to buy certain clothing colors, such as red, for their children because the colors could be associated with gangs.
“The next chief hopefully will have the courage to do the right thing for the Hispanic community over the long term because that’s how we’re going to keep the gangs out over time,” Corella said.
The new police chief would oversee the department’s roughly $8.3 million budget for about 20 patrol officers plus other staff.
Former police Chief Lisa Solomon resigned from her position in April after public attention swelled around her when a former officer accused her of sexual harassment and another claimed officers were required to meet illegal ticket quotas. Those officers now have lawsuits filed against the city.