Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Police International Unit Easing Immigrants' Minds; They Reach out to Fearful Immigrants Who May Avoid Reporting Crimes

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Police International Unit Easing Immigrants' Minds; They Reach out to Fearful Immigrants Who May Avoid Reporting Crimes

Article excerpt

Byline: KEN LEWIS

Jacksonville police Officer Ivan Pena surveys the room full of Hispanics after introducing himself and Officer Dennis Pellot, the two members of a new Jacksonville police unit created to deal with the city's growing immigrant population.

He speaks in Spanish to a group that includes Peruvians, Mexicans and more.

"We're not immigration," Pena said. "We're not 'federales.' Of course, if you commit a crime, that's another thing. We'll find you a place to spend the night."

The group of about 30 laugh at the subtle phrasing, then pepper the officers with questions. Most of the problems are utilitarian, such as whether certain international driver's licenses are legal. It is a friendly gathering at a police substation off Dunn Avenue, part of Pena and Pellot's continuing efforts to spread the word about the new unit.

With an easy bearing and flawless Spanish, they try to reach out to immigrants who may avoid reporting crimes for fear of being deported.

"We're seeing a change," Pellot said. "They're reporting these crimes now. They aren't going to be easy prey any more."

As they work on locating the parts of town where the immigrants live, the officers will be contacting Hispanic pastors to reach people through churches as well. They have been meeting with residents at least once a week since Sheriff John Rutherford announced the creation of the unit last month. Pellot is also translating a crime-prevention pamphlet.

At first, the officers planned to go out with unmarked cars and specialized polo shirts, but that idea fell through so they're using their marked cars and hoping people don't scatter.

"We hope our gift of gab gets us closer," Pena said.

A rash of robberies against immigrants provided much of the impetus for the new unit, but the officers are finding a lot of scams involving fake international driver's licenses sold to people. Many of the immigrants are also abused financially, tricked into overpaying for shared rooms by predators who understand their fear.

"They use the threat 'I'll call the immigration'," Pellot said.

For now, the officers see about 20 criminal reports a week involving Hispanics, a growing population in Northeast Florida. …

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