SEBRING — It doesn’t matter what language you speak, if you have been a victim of crime or have information regarding criminal activity, the police are encouraging you to call them.
With an increasing number of non-English speaking residents now moving into Highlands County, local law enforcement agencies say they have been proactive in adopting technology and integrating new personnel training techniques.
Many of the officers and staff within police departments speak both English and Spanish.
Officers receive training on cultural sensitivity and diversity, aimed at enhancing their understanding of cultural values that are different from their own.
Increasing availability of online resources for language translation also offers a quick and easy resource, which when combined with their training, form a web of support that assists law enforcement officers in crossing the language barrier.
In Highlands County, English and Spanish are the most widely spoken languages, but there is also a need for Haitian, Creole and some Asian dialects. Although, the various departments in the area have staff that can easily bridge the gap on Spanish, the variety of languages coming into the area can present a unique challenge.
The 911 dispatch center in Highlands County has a solution in place, contracting with Optimal Phone Interpreters, a service offering live interpreter support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than 200 languages.
Sebring Police Cmndr. Steve Carr also recognizes the increasing number of non-English speaking residents but feels his department is adequately equipped in crossing the language barriers. The department has a number of bilingual officers on staff, he said, and communication problems with residents are not an issue.
Although Lake Placid has seen an increase in the population of both Haitian and Creole residents, Police Chief James Fansler is not overly concerned about the language barrier.
“We either find someone that is bilingual, or we can also use Google Translate,” he said. “A lot of information is available on our Facebook page, and we try to populate that as quickly as possible.”
Since Facebook is available in most major languages, and the younger generations actively follow things using the Internet, this has proven to be an effective means of staying in touch with the local community, despite the language barrier, he said.
One of the more critical obstacles faced within multicultural environments is the difference in social beliefs and customs.
In many foreign cultures, authoritarian-style police forces often instill a sense of fear towards law enforcement officials.
Conversely, in the mid-1990s, the United States adopted a new approach to law enforcement known as community policing. Under this new strategy, law enforcement officers focus on developing community relations and problem-solving techniques to reduce crime while improving public safety.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton feels confident the language barrier is not a significant factor, but is concerned that cultural differences represent a substantial challenge due to the high percentage of migrant workers in this area.
“One of the main things all of our officers constantly try to emphasize is that we don’t want anyone to fear us if they are a victim of crime,” she said. “We’re not immigration officers and that isn’t our focus. We encourage everyone to report crimes so that we can help.”
In the Highlands Boulevard area of South Sun n Lakes, Lake Placid, there has been a rash of crimes directed at migrant workers.
“We have indications that there is a group of young white males beating and stealing from Hispanic residents in that area. A lot of these predators know that the Hispanic workers don’t have bank accounts, are often paid in cash and folks take advantage of that,” Benton said.
“If the residents see people in their area that seem out of place, they need to call us,” she said.
Benton understands that because of their cultural bias, many of the workers fear the police, but still hopes the local population will offer more information. CrimeStoppers, she said, is anonymous, but if the tip leads to a felony arrest, the recovery of stolen property or drugs, cash can be paid to the informant, even as they remain anonymous.
When contacting CrimeStoppers anonymously, callers are given a unique identifier and do not have to give their personal information, allowing them to remain anonymous.
The possibility of a cash reward encourages otherwise reluctant callers to provide information, she said.
“You never know when one little piece of information can provide the key link to solving an open case or even a string of related crimes,” Benton added.
Benton reiterated her concern that many migrants are afraid to contact authorities because of their cultural bias.
She encourages anyone with information to call either the police or the anonymous tip lines because solving the crimes are the department’s first priority.
“Really our deputies are problem-solvers and approach the daily patrol with a community mindset. They aren’t in there just looking for bad guys, it’s an overall approach to helping maintain a quality of life,” she added.
Whenever Nell Hays, spokeswoman and Crime Prevention Practitioner for Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, goes out into the local communities and holds seminars on a variety of topics, she often takes along someone who can function as an interpreter. She feels strongly that improved community relations will enhance the department’s ability to solve cases.
Hays echoes the sentiment that “we have to work on changing their culture here because many migrant workers have the belief that law enforcement is their enemy and we’re not trying to be the enemy - but they’re very concerned and don’t have that comfort with police.” Additionally, HCSO pamphlets and news releases are routinely issued and available in both English and Spanish.
Many of the residents of the Highlands Boulevard area in south Lake Placid expressed concern about the rise of crime in their area but recognize the difficulty in apprehending viable suspects because no one has yet been able to provide a concise description of the assailants.
Alex Cornejo, a clerk at the Lupita Grocery Store, is concerned the store he works at is often referred to when discussing proximity to the crimes.
Cornejo is upset that the store reputation will suffer because of this proximity, even though the actual crime does not take place on the business grounds, nor does it happen during business hours.
“We keep this area clean and have security lights up, but they do not cover the outlying streets because that isn’t part of the business. We discourage people from hanging around at night, asking them to go home, but we have no control over what they choose to do,” he said.