By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Why did it happen?
David Araujo is senior pastor at Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor in Goshen, where on any given Sunday, 50 to 60 people attend services. The congregation is predominantly Hispanic.
Araujo had heard his churchgoers’ misgivings about local police, and cited one example in particular: A woman who’d been pulled over during a traffic stop and didn’t understand why. She was found to be driving without a license and registration. Araujo said that at first she felt she was being unfairly targeted as a Hispanic and a woman.
A new program in Goshen helped put the misunderstanding to rest.
It started with a conversation. Then it grew.
Gilberto Perez Jr. and Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson were talking about Latinos being cited for driving without a license. Those drivers might feel nervous, according to Perez, and perhaps feel they’re being discriminated against and wonder why they’re being pulled over.
That chat was the springboard for a community policing project. Goals behind the effort include building trust between the Latino community and Goshen police, and sharing information with Latinos about what the police department does.
“I would say it’s a greater awareness of policing here in Goshen, which gives law enforcement an opportunity to tell the Latino community how they function and what types of things to expect,” Perez Jr. said.
Five community meetings have taken place since April, with more planned in the future.
Perez Jr. wears a few different hats, professionally speaking, and all jibe with the community policing project. He’s president and chief executive officer of Bienvenido Community Solutions, which is aimed at helping immigrants to improve their mental health, quality of life and to engage with their local community. He also teaches social work at Goshen College, and serves as a regional pastor for the Indiana Michigan Mennonite Conference.
Perez Jr. said his conversation with Branson led to inviting a number of pastors to meet with the police chief and Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman.
“That led to a good conversation where the mayor and Chief Branson were able to talk about some of the history of Latinos here in this community, and how the city and city police have worked at trying to build bridges within the Latino community,” he said.
The community policing program involves Goshen city and law enforcement officials, Hispanics and interested non-Latinos from various churches. The initiative brought people together to have a discussion about police work: What type of questions might an officer ask during a traffic stop? What should drivers expect if they’re pulled over? What if a driver doesn’t have a license?
“The initiative gives the Goshen Police Department an opportunity to explain some of those basic traffic stop things that may be different from where the Latino people are coming from, their particular country, whether it’s Mexico, Central or South America,” Perez Jr. said. “That initiative creates space for people to openly ask questions of our law enforcement officials.”
Kauffman feels that conversation is a good one to have.
The mayor’s view
Reducing the number of people driving without licenses and insurance in Goshen is important to the mayor. Kauffman wants word to get out that there are alternatives to driving unlawfully, including carpooling and public transportation.
Another goal behind the community policing project is crime reduction, and for Latinos to feel comfortable contacting police. Kauffman indicated Goshen police aren’t in the business of enforcing federal immigration laws.
“Police want people to be able to report problems without fear of deportation,” Kauffman said. “We want crimes to be reported.”
The mayor said he’s heard stories about the corruption in some police departments in Mexico and other areas, situations in which “it’s actually the drug lords that build the playgrounds.”
“I think it’s great for people to understand what to expect from (local) police and what not to expect from the police,” Kauffman said. “...A lot of folks are coming to Goshen from places where they don’t trust the police. We have to look at ways to build trust.”
Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor was one of the host sites for a community policing meeting. Araujo sees the positives of the initiative.
“It helps us to do away with some of those misconceptions that were there, which was that the police were targeting the Latino community and possibly even looking to find out what their immigration status was,” he said. “And of course that never panned out to be the case.”
Araujo also said a number of members of his congregation, as well as other churches, feel more confident and not fearful of reporting crimes, “things that otherwise would have gone unreported to police.”
Araujo said the project has been educational for his congregation, which had many feelings of distrust and fear toward police — not just Goshen officers — doing traffic stops. And as for the woman at his church who’d been pulled over? Her vehicle had a brake light out.
“Upon having that community policing event... and asking very specific questions to the chief of police, we were able to then understand what might have prompted the police pulling her over,” Araujo said. Not knowing the English language, it was difficult for the woman to understand the reason at the time.
Another result of the initiative, according to Araujo, has been Iglesia Menonita church members who do not have drivers’ licenses being urged to carpool, use public transportation or ride a bicycle.
“That word has been communicated in our congregations,” Araujo said.
Getting the word out about the community policing initiative is on the mind of Perez Jr.
Project organizers sought funding from the Goshen Community Relations Commission, which has approved giving the group $2,800.
Part of that money will be used to record public service announcements and buy airtime on radio stations with Spanish-language programming to promote upcoming meetings. The funding will also be used to pay facilitators who can help direct the community policing gatherings. According to Perez Jr., the idea is keep the group on task, and assure that people with a question have the opportunity to speak.
Perez Jr. said he sees potential for the initiative to expand to other Goshen city departments. For example, a Building Department staffer could talk to Latino congregations about building permits and what’s permissible in a home expansion project.
At far as his own department is concerned, Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson sounds pleased with the community initiative.
“Moving to a new community can be difficult; add in the culture differences and potential language barriers and it can cause apprehension and fear of the unknown,” Branson said in a statement to The News. “The meetings with the Latino community have been about providing information and answering questions in a comfortable and familiar environment. These meetings are instrumental in relaying important information but they are also a great way to introduce our Latino residents to the police department, its services and practices.”
Branson stated his hope is that attendees leave the meetings with their questions answered, their concerns relieved and with an accurate understanding of what Goshen police officers do.
“The majority of the residents of Goshen, regardless of their country of origin, want the same things: to live in a safe community and provide for their families,” Branson said.