July 16--Drunks on porches and prostitutes at street corners crowded the Heather Heights apartment complex on Celanese Road when a teenaged Luz Contreras moved to Rock Hill from Las Cruces, N.M., in 2005.
A year later, someone stole her car.
"There was a lot" going on, said Contreras, 23. "Now, it's very calm."
That calm puts her at ease when her 5-year-old daughter and 9-year-old brother play outside. The credit, she says, goes to a group of Rock Hill police officers tasked with breaking down the language barrier between the police department and Hispanic victims and suspects.
The Latino Liaison Team -- six police officers with roots in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil -- began canvassing and holding meetings in predominantly Hispanic Rock Hill neighborhoods last year, said Officer Jonathan Moreno, a member of the team.
The meetings, which held in Spanish, give residents an opportunity to "learn the ways of Rock Hill and to talk and feel more comfortable," Moreno said.
Reisdents also get up-to-date crime statistics on their area, Moreno said.
Latino immigrants who may have come from countries riddled with police corruption and a different frequency of crime may have a "higher tolerance to violence," Moreno said.
The team aims to help them realize "you don't have to tolerate" certain crimes or criminals.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau Rock Hill's Hispanic population grew to 5.1 percent in 2010. York County's Hispanic population grew to 4.5 percent.
Before the team took action, Moreno said police had trouble reaching Hispanic residents, and residents had difficulty communicating with, or trusting, police officers.
Now, residents have the option of contacting officers that understand them, linguistically and culturally, Moreno said.
"That option being there...it was kind of like welcoming to the community," he said.
Interest in what the team offers didn't catch on immediately, Moreno said. Now people are opening up more and trusting authorities, he said.
It's not always a bad sign when attendance at meetings wavers, Moreno said.
"Either they're not interested or they're seeing positive change," he said. But, "even though there's positive change, we want to keep that early roller coaster ride going straight."
Members of the liaison team mostly make up the patrol division, Moreno said, and cover nearly every shift. When Rock Hill police respond to a "case dealing with Hispanic residents and find communicating difficult, they can contact members of the liaison team for language assistance.
The team also assists school resource officers and deputies with the York County Sheriff's Office, Moreno said.
For some, the impact is obvious.
Neighbors have reported positive change where they live, Moreno said, and have become more open and honest when talking with officers. They're identifying "problem people" and "problem apartments," Moreno said.
Yolanda Roblero, the mother of an 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, moved to Rock Hill eight years ago. On Thursday, she brought her children to Heather Heights to partake in York County's Summer Feeding Program.
"There are a lot of police," she said. "...A lot of crime."
But, with a heavy police presence and officers that speak her language, she said she feels "confident" for herself and children.
Heather Heights remains one of the team's biggest targets and beneficiaries.
Rock Hill crime statistics for 2011 show that Heather Heights topped the list of apartment complexes where most violent crimes occurred. With five robberies, it was also at the top of the list for areas and neighborhoods where most 2011 robberies occurred in one defined area.
Property crimes in the area have declined by more than 33 percent over the past five years, according to statistics.
Officers didn't start seeing the results of their labor until January this year, Moreno said. Since that time, calls and complaints from Hispanic residents have decreased, he said.
Spanish-speaking officers at crime scenes help ease tensions for Hispanic victims who can give an officer a piece of information in Spanish without worrying about their neighbor understanding and targeting them, Moreno said.
The team meets with the community every three months, Moreno said. Their next neighborhood meeting will be in September.
Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082
Copyright 2012 - The Herald, Rock Hill, S.C.