A More Personal National Night Out
Bell Gardens neighborhood watch tailors to its Spanish-speaking members.
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
Longtime Bell Gardens resident Martha Cabral often finds herself encouraging her neighbors to keep their porch lights on, cars locked and to be on alert for suspicious activity in order to deter crime on her block. Her involvement with the city’s neighborhood watch program has helped her build trust in the city’s police department, and now she is hoping to recruit more neighborhood watch members during National Night Out activities taking place in the city next Tuesday.
National Night Out began in 1984 as a campaign against crime. According to the nonprofit organization National Association of Town Watch, the program was started to promote civilian involvement in crime prevention activities by promoting police-community partnerships.
In Bell Gardens’ largely immigrant, Spanish speaking community, police say there are barriers to building such partnerships, but add that the city’s neighborhood watch program has gone to great lengths to ensure residents feel included.
“When we talk about our community, we talk about a community that doesn’t want to get involved or report crimes … the trust isn’t there,” said Neighborhood Watch Coordinator Mary Lou Trevis. “But since the program started, the members don’t feel that way.”
Trevis told EGP that the group’s 300 or so members no longer fear police and will now call the authorities whenever they witness suspicious activity or are a victim of crime.
She bases her conclusion on the program’s growing number of members, which started with just 10 residents attending monthly meetings. Most of the members are in their early thirties to early fifties and about 95 percent of them only speak Spanish, she said.
And while language is a barrier in many public service sectors, that’s no longer the case in Bell Gardens, Trevis said. When police officers make a presentation at a neighborhood watch meeting it is nearly always done in Spanish and so are the materials provided.
According to the police department, two thirds of its officers are bilingual and those who don’t speak Spanish are often still able to communicate with residents, or there is someone available to translate.
Spanish-speaking police officers are definitely an asset, but not the total answer to engaging residents is crime prevention.
Chaplain Ray Leal from the Bell Gardens Christian Church tells EGP that there will always be some mistrust of police, especially amongst undocumented immigrants. He says neighborhood watch has created a “bridge that brings both sides together.”
“They hear rumors that they will get deported for reporting a crime, but when officers ask residents to name one person they know that has been reported, they cannot,” said Lt. Brendan Kirkpatrick, who works with the city’s watch groups and refers to the deportation rumor as a “forest fire that won’t go away.”
Through the program, Cabral learned that it’s not uncommon for Latino parents to tell their children in Spanish things like “I’m going to call the police if you don’t behave.” She says may actually cause children to grow up afraid of the police.
“The view of the police has changed a lot for Latinos in Bell Gardens,” acknowledged Cabral in Spanish. “At first, many [undocumented] immigrant residents may not have called police out of fear, but now they trust, are involved and forget their status” when it comes to crime.
A typical neighborhood watch meeting will include police officers discussing criminal activity in a particular area, such as auto theft, burglary, drugs or gang activity.
The meetings “break the ice,” says Trevis, who tells EGP the meetings are also an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about police procedures.
The police officers who attend the meetings always give residents their business cards and some even give out their cell phone numbers, said Lt. Kirkpatrick, who has noticed residents are now more willing to call police when there is a concern.
Next Tuesday, Aug. 5, Bell Gardens residents wanting to learn more about the neighborhood watch program or to speak directly to police officers, can do so during the city’s National Night Out block parties.
In previous years, the National Night Out program was held at Ford Park, but this year’s event is being scaled back and will be more grassroots, according to Police Chief Robert Barnes.
“The event was turning into a large picnic,” said Barnes, about the event that attracted hundreds of residents to the program that included free food and family activities.
“We just wanted to focus on the most effective way to reach everyone that wants to be a part of [the watch],” echoed Lt. Kirkpatrick.
This year, the National Night Out block parties will be held at two separate homes on opposite sides of the city.
The more “personalized” format will allow residents to come out of their homes and share their concerns, opening the “lines of communication between the area and the police department.” said Trevis.
“We want to send a message to say no to crime, that Bell Gardens will not put up with it.”Print This Post
July 31, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.