To bridge the gap between local police and the area’s Hispanic community, a local advocacy group held a workshop Monday evening to get the conversation flowing.
The event was put together by Sin Barreras in partnership with the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights as a follow up to the Know Your Rights series of events sponsored by the city police department last year.
About 75 people attended the event to speak about their experiences and fears of being stopped by the police. Many of the people who stood up to speak said they are afraid of interacting with the police because of their immigration or citizenship status. Others said they think police unfairly target Hispanics.
Pocket-sized Know Your Rights pamphlets in Spanish also were passed out to the participants to advise them on what to do if they are stopped by the police. The pamphlets advise that police officers cannot ask a person about their immigration status and that people should not necessarily be worried about the threat of deportation if an officer stops them.
Standing before the group, one woman cried as she told of her fears of being arrested for driving without a license and suffering the loss of her children if she is deported. She and other participants who stood to tell their stories all worried about driving without licenses, but said it was their only way of getting to work and supporting their families.
In Virginia, illegal immigrants are prohibited from getting a driver’s license, which puts a lot of people — particularly within the Hispanic community — into difficult situations, according to Sin Barreras volunteer Frank Sullivan.
“You have thousands of people in this community who are scared of anything to do with the police,” Sullivan said. “They could wind up in jail and end up on a plane out of here. They could leave their children or a spouse behind.”
“These are, otherwise, completely law-abiding people and it’s really scary for them.”
To assuage some of those fears and familiarize one group with the other, Sin Barreras invited representatives from both the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments to participate in the workshop. The goal, Sullivan said, was to bring a little understanding from each side to figure out a common middle ground.
“My hope is to get the two sides to understand one another a little better,” Sullivan said. “Police do not have a right to ask them about their immigration status and it’s important the Hispanic community knows that.”
Brushing off his own Spanish language skills, Albemarle police Lt. Todd Hopwood introduced himself to the group and spoke about his department’s desires to connect with the local Hispanic population. Switching to English — which elicited some giggles from the audience — Hopwood said he understands why the community is so afraid of being stopped.
“We know you work … and you’re a part of this community,” Hopwood said. “We also understand the difficulty of getting a license.”
“But la ley es la ley — the law is the law,” he said.
Hopwood said he wants more officers to understand the struggles some people in the Hispanic community suffer, but he said sometimes the police have to do their jobs. He said a ticket is never personal.
“We don’t want you to be afraid of us,” Hopwood said.
Charlottesville police Capt. Gary Pleasants also took the stage to assure the Hispanic audience that the department is there to serve and protect every citizen in the community, no matter their immigration status or ethnicity.
“Everyone here is our community,” he said.
For Pleasants and the Charlottesville department, the event was an opportunity to hear the concerns of the Hispanic community and to think of ways to better communicate. Pleasants said he understands the vicious cycle of potential consequences Hispanics face when they drive without a license.
“There seems to be a fear of the system and not knowing what to expect from us,” Pleasants said. “They don’t know how we act or why we do the things we do. It’s imperative that we are able to explain that to them and tell them that we’re here to help them and work with them.”
“It’s extremely important to us to contact and work with all members of our community, and the Hispanic community is one which we haven’t had a lot of communication or ties with,” he said. “We want to better those ties.”
For more information about the event’s organizer, visit sinbarrerascville.com.