Part of the Latino Action Team of the Rock Hill Police Department (Photo/Ileana Pauly)

The Latino A-Team to the rescue in Rock Hill, SC

The A-Team is back in town: in Rock Hill, S.C. to be more specific.  They call themselves the Latino Action Team and they are six police officers with roots in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil, who began canvassing and holding meetings to aid predominantly Hispanic Rock Hill neighborhoods in late December.

According to the 2010 Census figures, Rock Hill, SC is barely six percent Latino, but the Rock Hill Police Department says the number of newly arrived Hispanic immigrants seems to have risen rapidly in the last two years. They have also been the target of the highest occurring unreported crimes in Rock Hill —  robberies and assaults.

“Essentially people were reluctant to report crimes,” says officer Sammy Figueroa, 28, who has been working at Rock Hill Police Department for the past four years. He grew up in the Bronx, and used to be in the U.S. Air Force, but now he’s one of the original members of the Latino Action team since its inception about seven months ago. “Criminals knew they weren’t going to report it. We wanted to break that gap so victims could come forward.”

The team holds quarterly meetings, where they discuss the current issues going on in the city.

“We allow our officers to be great thinkers, and they came up with it — that was the good thing about it,” says Executive Lieutenant to the Chief of Police Brad Redfearn.

He says the Latino officers stepped up to the plate when they saw the need for a Hispanic liaison team.

“Several officers came up with the idea,” says Michael Sanchez, 31, originally from Miami. “We brought it to the attention of the department, and they agreed it would be a good idea to have a team of Hispanic officers.”

Sanchez says the team helps bridge the gap between Latino citizens in Rock Hill and law enforcement.

Officer Jonathan Moreno, 25 years old, of Colombian descent and from Miami, agrees.

“In other countries, law enforcement is so different — there’s a lot of corruption,” he says. “What we try to do is educate… We’re different… A lot of people were very afraid when they first got here. Right when I started speaking Spanish, their whole demeanor changed.”

He says the members of the team work different shifts on patrol, but they are all just a phone call away in case of an emergency.

“If we are on patrol and there’s a language barrier, we do translation,” says Moreno. “If we are all off duty, they call us in if needed. We also do community meetings in high-level Hispanic communities, and we talk to victims of crimes over the phone or in person.”

He also says they started a mentoring program to reach out to Latino kids in the community about two months ago.

“We try to meet with the kids at least once a month in their residence,” says Sanchez. “We provide them support in whatever they have going on, and help them in whatever advice we can provide.”

Moreno says the Hispanic population has not been any problem.

“They were not committing the crimes,” he says. “Earlier last year, a lot of Hispanic victims have been robbed and assaulted, and there’s been a huge decrease largely because there has been conversation. With more residents knowing who’s on the team, they can talk to us.”

Figueroa adds that they have also started to conduct trainings for the officers that don’t speak Spanish, to teach them the basics.

“I just love helping people and getting the communication to open up, and putting out a goal and seeing it fulfilled,” he says. “Domestic violence victims are actually coming forward. It’s not a futile attempt.”

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