NEW BEDFORD — In June, a few days after police lost track of a suspect wanted for sexual assault on children, police detective Samuel Algarin-Mojica received a telephone tip.
“I know where the guy is,” the voice on the phone said in Spanish. “And I think he has his kids.” Six hours later, the fugitive was arrested in Connecticut, and the children were safely under police care.
It’s no coincidence that the phone call came to Det. Algarin-Mojica. Both the tipster and the suspect were part of the city’s Central American community, where Spanish-speaking officers had been reaching out to immigrants.
“If it weren’t for this relationship that we have now,” said Algarin-Mojica, “we would have never gotten the information of where this guy and those kids were.”
Police efforts to build trust between officers and the often insular Central American community were assisted by Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, and Adrian Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario De Trabajadores (Community Workers Center).
Through weekly meetings now held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church and hosted by Rev. Germán Correa, Det. Algarin-Mojica and Lt. Candido Trinidad, spend time with members of the immigrant community, answering questions and talking about police services.
“The church has always been a safe place for the community,” said DaSilva Hughes. The officers not only interacted with the parishioners but also shared their direct cell phone numbers to encourage the Central American community to reach out when they need help.
Police said they decided to introduce the program — and the two bilingual officers — at last year’s Christmas celebration in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua Church. After having a McDonald’s breakfast together, officers watched the children open hundreds of donated gifts that were delivered by Police Lt. Scott Carola dressed as Santa Claus.
Then came the questions.
“Am I going to jail for 10 years?” asked someone who had been stopped and charged with operating under the influence.
Police Chief Paul Oliveira said he quickly realized that officers needed to get better acquainted with the immigrant community, both to ease suspicions and to educate residents about immigration issues.
“There’s a huge disconnect here,” Oliveira recalled thinking. “We’ve got to fix it.”
After that first meeting, Algarin-Mojica has also been approached by community members, many of them with work-related questions. Because some are undocumented immigrants, they told him they do not contact the police out of fear of being deported, Algarin-Mojica said.
“This is not how it works,” he told them. “We are not immigration (agents).”
Community project began with turmoil
The police outreach project was born in the fall of 2021, after demonstrators from New Bedford’s Central America community staged a work action outside Bob’s Tire Co. Immigrant advocate Ventura was also there, and he said employees had been upset with conditions at the tire recycling facility. When police arrived, officers intervened to stop the demonstrators from trespassing on private property. Some were arrested and placed in handcuffs but later released, police said.
The episode left members of the Central American community upset and confused about the local police.
“People have a right to strike,” Chief Oliveira said. “They just crossed the line” when they trespassed onto private property.
After the incident, Ventura met with the police chief and 20 other community members to discuss the police response at Bob’s Tire Co., as well as to let police brass know why members of the immigrant community often feel mistreated by authorities. Ventura said Central American immigrants are sometimes unfairly targeted as criminals, and that those who have been arrested experienced violations of their rights — such as not having an interpreter present while officers filled out police reports.
Sign up for our free newsletter
With U.S. Census figures showing that more than a third of the city’s residents speak a language other than English and 15% speak English “less than very well,” communication can become a serious problem, police and immigrant advocates acknowledge.
Chief Oliveira does not speak Spanish or Kʼiche’, the Mayan language of Guatemala’s highlands, so a translator was needed to navigate the initial meeting. “There was a big divide,” the chief said. “On their expectations of what we should have done and what we really could do.”
Beyond the language barriers, there is also fear. Nationwide, two-thirds of Latin Americans mistrust police, according to the latest public Latinobarometro opinion survey.
“We want them to trust us,” Oliveira explained.
Officers tasked with engagement
Soon after the meeting, Algarin-Mojica and Trinidad were appointed as community engagement officers. Both native Spanish speakers were given cell phones and business cards to help with outreach efforts.
The department’s goal was not only to build trust within the Central American community but also to facilitate access to police services. And it didn’t take long for efforts to pay off.
Months after the first meeting, the agents received a call from a member of the Central American community who provided information about a local store that was selling alcohol to minors. Police investigated the tip and because the store was not licensed to sell liquor or tobacco products, the officers obtained a search warrant. Once investigators found evidence of alcohol and cigarettes inside, the store was shut down, police said.
The reaction was unexpected. Some of the community residents thought police action was excessive, Oliveira said. “They didn’t realize it meant so much to that community because that guy was serving their kids that stuff.”
Police efforts continued and brought more results. Recently, an investigation about housing scams led to Victor Tiu Lopez’s indictment on 15 counts of theft and two counts of witness intimidation.
The tip to the police, once again, came from Central American Community members who were also the primary victims. Prosecutors said Lopez posed as an apartment owner on Facebook and Craigslist and collected deposits from would-be tenants, who were collectively bilked out of more than $22,000.
“There are about 30 victims listed right now,” said Algarin-Mojica.
Ventura said he is also pleased with the police efforts. “I think that in this project that is going on, we see about a 40% improvement,” he said. In the past, officers had not always been able to bridge gaps with the Central American community.
“We feel it’s a good thing that they now have police officers who speak Spanish because then there isn’t confusion when a report is made,” Ventura said.
Just last month, the New Bedford Police Department hired Nicole Rodriguez Rios, another Spanish-speaking patrol officer.
Besides having a better understanding of what the people want and need, the police department has one long-term goal for the younger generation living within the Central American community.
“These children look at somebody like Sami (Samuel Algarin-Mojica) and see the police in that light,” said NBPD spokesman Lt. Scott Carola. “Ten years from now, they will be interested in the police themselves and better represent their community in our department.”
Email Eleonora Bianchi at email@example.com.