Police reach out to immigrants to break down wall of mistrust

Email|Print| Text size + By Tanya Pérez-Brennan
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2008

Roseangela Parsons and Marillyn Silva stood in the cold night air, pointing radar guns and lasers at passing cars, hoping to identify speeders.

But neither one is a police officer. Parsons and Silva are civilians who attended a presentation by Framingham police, part of an outreach to the town's immigrant communities - in particular, its Brazilian population.

During the session at police headquarters on Jan. 31 , Lieutenant Stephen Cronin pulled out radar units from open black cases resting on a table in a training room. Then he took participants outside to let them handle the bulky equipment.

"I think it's very interesting to have this sort of relationship with the police," said Parsons, who drove from her home in Weymouth to attend the seminar. "For immigrants, there is a lot of misunderstanding of the system."

The session was a follow-up to a four-day series of seminars in November that covered subjects ranging from immigration law to obtaining a driver's license to domestic violence. The program, called "Law and Justice Seminar for Immigrant Populations," also included a conversation with town and state officials.

The program grew out of a desire to reduce mistrust between local Brazilians and local law enforcement officials, said Police Chief Steven Carl. Brazilian residents had outlined concerns last June at a communitywide dialogue with town officials, representatives from the Department of Justice, and the police.

"We had unanswered questions and there was misinformation creating distrust and fear," Carl said, adding he was surprised by the positive feedback he got after the November seminar.

"I expected more controversy from the Brazilian community," he said. "I didn't think we'd get as much support."

Though some advocates for area Brazilians praised the outreach, others suggested that more needs to be done - not only by the police, but by town officials.

"We're asking too much of our Police Department," said Frank Kavanagh, president of the Brazilian American Association. The association had representatives at the sessions, although Kavanagh did not attend any himself.

"We've got to go beyond information sessions, and that takes commitment, planning, and work," he said.

Lieutenant Paul Shastany, a Police Department spokesman, said more than 25 people attended each night in November after invitations were sent out to community leaders, journalists, and business owners. The Jan. 31 class attracted seven people for a tour of police headquarters, which included seeing traffic control equipment, fingerprinting stations, the booking area, and a dispatch center.

Framingham police say the seminar is only the first step in building trust.

"We have more work to do as a Police Department and the Brazilian community has some work to do on their own," Carl said.

Ilton Lisboa, who helps run a Brazilian immigrant advocacy group in Marlborough, played a role in the outreach effort by helping police with research and contacting leaders in Framingham's Brazilian community.

Lisboa said the effort exceeded his expectations.

"I was so satisfied with the end result, I never expected there to be so much information provided," he said.

However, there is some criticism of the outreach. Police did not offer a concrete proposal to deal with the breach with Brazilians, said Manoel Oliveira, pastor at the New Life Presbyterian Community Church.

"I definitely think that more needs to be done," he said. "It doesn't take much to find out what the problems are and that we're in the midst of a crisis."

Still, the outreach efforts by Chief Carl and his department are not typical, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington D.C.

"I think that he is in the vanguard on this kind of thing by being proactive and reaching out to those communities," Wexler said. "I can't say that he's alone, but he's certainly in the forefront of trying to put immigrant communities at ease."

Police in Marlborough and Milford said their departments are interested in the immigrant outreach sessions held in Framingham, but have not done anything like it yet.

"It's something that is certainly worth looking at, and I think I'd like to at least give it some serious consideration," said Marlborough Police Chief Mark F. Leonard. Leonard said he mentioned the Framingham effort to Mayor Nancy Stevens to see if something similar could be done in that city.

In Milford, the Police Department has held neighborhood meetings with its Brazilian and Ecuadoran communities, said Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin.

He said he would consider a similar program if Framingham's efforts to improve the town's relationship with its Brazilian community turned out to be effective.

"Any way that you reach out and get information to people is always helpful," O'Loughlin said.

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