One by one, most with a good dose of bashfulness, the prospective students stood up and explained what brought them on a Wednesday night to Metro Police headquarters.
Several cited a desire as Las Vegas residents to learn about their “derechos y obligaciones,” rights and responsibilities.
One man stood up, said he had three teenagers and wanted to learn more about keeping them away from gangs and out of trouble.
Some had been living in the United States for 20 years, others for just a couple years.
Olivia Diaz, the District 11 assemblywoman and elementary school teacher who was born and raised in Las Vegas, said she joined the class so she could learn more and pass that information on to her constituents and students.
One woman said she worked at an apartment complex and wanted to offer more useful information to tenants.
Then, Juan Romulo, a former graduate of Metro’s Hispanic Citizen’s Academy, spoke. He was there to make sure the more than 30 people who showed up for the academy’s orientation session would actually sign up for the full course.
“It was a great experience, and I recommend everyone does it,” Romulo said. “I’m always telling young people to come to the class. It teaches you what to do if you need to report a crime, how to be a good member of the community and that you don’t need to be afraid of the police.”
The Hispanic Citizen’s Academy started in September 2007, the brainchild of now-retired Lt. George Castro. It has been conducted twice a year ever since.
“(Castro) knew the Hispanic population in the area would continue to grow, and he wanted to do something to help the people living here to assimilate,” said Metro Officer David Cienega, current director of the academy. “It was put in place to educate people on the laws and build ties with the community.”
The three-hour academy classes are taught once a week for 11 weeks. They cover a range of topics including gangs, drugs, useful English for communicating with law enforcement, how to report a crime, rights of Nevada residents, domestic violence and general police operations. Metro offers free child care for children between 5 and 12 years old. The academy is for those 18 and older.
“I want to learn more about the laws of Nevada and my rights,” said Augustin Nava. “I had people come in my home, invade my home. I didn’t know what my rights were to defend myself.”
In 1999, Metro’s now-retired Lt. Randy Sutton started the Hispanic American Resource Team, known as HART. At the time, officers were frustrated they couldn’t get information from many crime victims and witnesses of Hispanic descent because they did not trust police. One crime wave in particular spurred action.
“There was a wave of guys targeting undocumented immigrants at check-cashing businesses,” said Metro Officer Jay Rivera. “They knew the immigrants would be loaded with cash and unwilling to go to the police. Some people may say that we should be concerned with deporting undocumented immigrants, but our responsibility is to find criminals no matter who their victims are. And, the fact is, if crime goes unreported in the immigrant community, it’s only a matter of time before it spills over into other areas.”
The Hispanic Citizen’s Academy, which is similar to Metro’s Citizen’s Police Academy but taught in Spanish, was later added as an extension of the resource team’s work, and the officers on the team volunteer their time to work with the academy.
One of the biggest roadblocks to getting an accurate gauge on crime in the Hispanic community is the reluctance of immigrants without a legal status to approach police.
Francisco Rangel, who attended the orientation, said programs like the academy were a step in the right direction, but improvements still could be made.
“There is racial profiling going on, and I hear complaints on a daily basis from people who say they have been mistreated by authorities,” said Rangel, who works for Hermandad Mexicana, a nonprofit organization that primarily assists people with immigration and citizenship issues. “A lot of people are still afraid to talk to the police about anything.”
Rangel teaches courses on citizenship at Hermandad Mexicana and said he was participating in the academy because he would like to develop a course for his students about their rights and duties beyond what they need to know for the citizenship test.
During the academy, officers make it clear they do not inquire about the immigration status of victims and witnesses.
Since 2008, the department has participated in 287 (g), a partnership with federal immigration authorities in which Metro checks the immigration status of those who are booked into the Clark County Detention Center.
Critics have said the federal program often targets low-level criminals and results in racial profiling, but a January 2011 Migration Policy Institute report indicated that Metro runs the program that is “most targeted” toward high-level offenders.
“The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department operates citizen academies to inform the public on department activities. While not always 287 (g)-focused, these more general outreach activities have helped instill a sense of trust in the police among the city’s Hispanic community,” the report said.
The report went on to state that such constructive outreach was rare among the police departments it studied.
Still, misunderstandings of Metro’s role in the community and how it participates in enforcing immigration laws prevail, and the officers who run the academy hope their graduates act as ambassadors in the community.
“ICE may call us when they execute a deportation order to set up a perimeter,” Rivera said. “We have to help our fellow agency, but then people see us there and say we are deporting people. Maybe someone’s friend or brother gets pulled over for a traffic violation and he has an outstanding warrant. They think we arrested him and checked his immigration status because of the traffic stop, but it was really the warrant. Misinformation can spread very easily.”
Cienega said police departments from Edmonton, Canada, and Desoto, Texas, have asked about both the resource team and academy and are starting similar programs in their districts.
“Every time we have the academy we do a critique and we add things based on everyone’s suggestions,” Cienega said. “The program is constantly evolving. We’ve added things on auto insurance, different crime trends and the bogus identification cards some stores offer in the last few years.”
Those who would like to participate in the academy can register before the first class, held from 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, 400 S. Martin Luther King Blvd. For information, call 828-1999.