By Ed Brock
Trust in police officers does not come easy for members of the immigrant Hispanic community in Forest Park.
The language barrier, their experiences with police in their native countries and a simple lack of understanding of how law enforcement works contribute to this distrust, said Miguel Santana, a Mexican national living in the Forest Park area.
"Everybody has fear of the police. They think they will go to immigration," Santana said.
But Santana decided he needed to know more about his local police department so he could help end that fear in his community, so he is one of the students in the Forest Park Police Department's Hispanic Citizens Police Academy.
A variation on the department's regular Citizens Police Academy, students in the academy are taught about police procedures and the law during a nine-week program. The topics for each class include criminal and traffic law, domestic violence, gangs and the police use of force. The HCPA students also get some hands on experience by going through the department's Firearms Training Simulator and taking a ride along with police officers.
But HCPA instructor Officer Mayra Ambris delivers her classes in Spanish. Ambris was the original instructor for the program when it began two years ago, and she's seen the class grow in popularity.
"In the first class we started out with 10 people," Ambris said. "In this one I've got more than 30."
And she's added instructors, Officers Carlos Chipoco and Juan Jordan. Chipoco and Jordan are students as well as teachers, Ambris said.
"It teaches them people skills," Ambris said. "That's the main purpose, not only to teach the people but also the officers."
The HCPA class was one reason why Chipoco, a native of Peru who has been in America for 20 years, became a Forest Park police officer a year and a half ago. At that time he saw an ad in the newspaper for the class.
"I saw they were really close to the Hispanic community," Chipoco said, adding that that community is itself diverse. "Everything is new in this country. Even though we (in the Hispanic community) come from different countries, here there is only one law and everybody is confused."
The HCPA is a good way to ease that confusion. It also helps to "break the ice," between the police and the ever-growing Hispanic community, said Jordan, a native of Panama.
"When they trust us we can do our job better," Jordan said.
Tony and Lulu Alfeo said the class has given the students a chance to meet police officers in non-threatening environment.
"They're human," Lulu Alfeo, a native of Mexico, said. "We understand them because they told us about their experiences."
Tony Alfeo said the program is perfect even for him. He was born in Massachusetts.
"Just because I was born here doesn't mean I know the laws inside and out," Tony Alfeo said.
The next HCPA will be held in the fall, is free of charge and open to everybody. For more information call Ambris at (404) 366-2232 or Capt. Roy Hanson at (404) 366-7280.