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Canby Latinos, police seek better understanding

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Canby Concilio held a town hall event to talk about bettering the relationships with Canby Police

Canby Police Chief Bret Smith and representatives of Concilio and Bridging Cultures have been working together since 2016. The Canby Concilio, a group whose primary goal is to provide a collective voice for the local Latino community, held a town hall-style event at Baker Prairie Middle School late last month in an attempt to foster better communication, understanding and relationships between Latinos and the Canby Police Department.

Beginning in the fall 2016, Canby Police Chief Bret Smith, along with representatives of Concilio and Bridging Cultures, a local nonprofit whose mission is to promote understanding and mutual respect for communities with diverse populations and cultures, distributed a survey to Latinos who live in and around Canby that asked what their experience interacting with police officers had been like.

Since that time, President Donald Trump was elected and that has led to many reports of fear and anxiety throughout Latino populations across the U.S. based on his promise to deport millions of Mexican-Americans who came to this country illegally — deportations in Oregon have been ongoing.

About 60 people turned out for the Concilio town hall, a total that organizers found disappointing. However, most agreed it was a good start to what they hope will become a wide-ranging community dialogue on issues that affect the local Latino community, which now accounts for a little less than 25 percent of Canby's overall population, according to city officials and the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

"This was our first time doing this and maybe a lot of people didn't hear that we were going to do it," Concilio President Vicente Alvarez said. "Maybe many people were kind of afraid to come because the police would be there. I did hear from some people that they were too concerned to get involved."

The survey asked a wide range of questions, and people responded both negatively and positively, which is typical of surveys distributed en masse, but overall only a few people indicated they felt they had been mistreated during interactions with Canby police officers.

Alvarez said the survey indicated much of the Latino community had not had any interaction with the local police department, and for the most part people said Canby Police treated them fairly.

Smith said members of the Canby Police Department have spent much effort and time building a trusting relationship with everyone in the Canby community, including the Latino population, but that interactions with citizens always is a work in progress.

"Mutual trust and respect between the community and the police is essential to community policing," Smith said. "As a police department, our goal is to ensure people in our community are safe and are not afraid to talk with any member of the department. It is important for everyone to report crime and (that) they are willing witnesses."

But much of the discussion at the Concilio town hall focused around driver's license issues and other driving-related laws. Janet Diaz, a Bridging Cultures board member, gave what many in the audience later deemed a heated speech of sorts to Chief Smith, saying Canby Police should not arrest or cite illegal immigrants who are stopped and found to be driving without a license; this chicken-or-the-egg argument has been echoed by others in the community who want to see local residents able to drive to work without fear of deportation or incarceration after being stopped by Canby Police.

Smith said there have been many discussions that focus on the deportation of undocumented persons with regard to the recent presidential election, and that there have been a few local reports of people scared to go to work because they don't want to find a federal immigration agent at their workplace.

"There is some concern municipal police officers are connected to the federal government's efforts and might assist in some capacity," Smith said. "However, the mission of the Canby Police Department is a local law enforcement agency with limited personnel and material resources. The department's primary focus is to protect life and property, to enhance community safety and improve quality of life by reducing crime and the fear of crime, and to perform in such a manner that promotes the public's trust and confidence, sense of safety and security. Officers are not checking the immigration status of people they encounter nor are they participating in immigration raids."

Smith pointed to a 1987 Oregon state law that prohibits local police from enforcing federal immigration law; police officers are not supposed to ask about a person's immigration status or collaborate with federal immigration and customs enforcement (ICE).

"What this means is that when a police officer in (Oregon) performs a traffic stop for the purpose of investigating a minor traffic violation, that should not prompt or generate a contact with immigration agents," Smith said.

Charlie Gingrich, also a Bridging Cultures board member, said he thinks it will be difficult for "things to improve a lot with the Latino population until families deal with the driver's license issue," whether that means taking public transportation, arranging carpools, etc.

"We're living in real interesting times and everything is up in the air with people in the Latino community really feeling anxiety," Gingrich said. "I don't know how we're going to come out of it. It also seems hard to talk about immigration as a whole. We talk about it in little bites but we (as a local community, but also as a nation,) never get down to really solving the problem, especially where it relates to people's ability to drive to work, or anywhere else for that matter."

Canby City Councilor Tracie Heidt, who was part of a panel discussion at the Concilio town hall — members of the city council, Concilio and Canby Police officers populated the panel — said she was glad to see Alvarez and others reach out to the city and the police department, and that the meeting provided a valuable step in the processes of fostering a better understanding among the local citizenry.

"I think safe was the keyword here for the day," Heidt said. "It was a safe environment where people could come with family and friends and sit at tables together, and for them to see and hear and interact with Chief Smith and officer Maria Campos, who is Hispanic. It was a nice show of support showing that we all get along and like each other. We (city officials) are here to work for you."

By the end of the meeting, those from the local Latino population recommended police officers take more time developing relationships with them by saying hello or being friendly. They suggested holding workshops for Latinos — those who may be illegal or who struggle to speak English — on how to submit complaints to officers, and for police to continue being present at Bridging Cultures events.

It also was suggested that Canby Police hold a citizen academy to help those new to the U.S. learn more about how the police department operates, and for police to allow members of the community to participate in ride-alongs.

Some members of the community even expressed interest in having police officers over to their homes for dinner.

Smith said he wants people to feel comfortable reporting crime and to not be afraid there will be repercussions for doing so.

"As a police department, our members will continue to reach out and participate with our local Latino organizations, such as Bridging Cultures and Concilio, and continue to seek out and look for opportunities to meet with and discuss the concerns of our community members," Smith said.

To view Smith's response, both in English and in Spanish, to federal immigration policy questions visit the Canby Police Department's website at http://www.canbypolice.com/.