CLEARWATER — Bruised and shaken, she walked into the Hispanic Outreach Center seeking help.
Her ex-boyfriend had stalked her and beaten her at a bus stop in Largo, the woman told a family advocate at the center. Police there couldn't speak Spanish. She couldn't speak English.
The advocate photographed the bruises on her legs and back. When the Clearwater Police Department's Hispanic outreach officer, Raymond Croze, approached her, she was in tears.
He tried to calm her, the same way he has done dozens of times with other immigrants who come forward to report a crime but are fearful of police.
"You're not going to be deported," he told her. "We're here to help you."
For more than a decade, the Clearwater Police Department, in partnership with the nonprofit InterCultural Advocacy Institute, has operated the Hispanic Outreach Center to gain the trust of Hispanic residents in Clearwater and other North Pinellas communities who are victims of crimes or have other needs.
This year, more than 100 people have stopped by Croze's office to report crimes, revealing a segment of criminal activity that targets low-income, undocumented, Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Croze also signed off on more than 30 U Visa applications, which many undocumented immigrants are eligible for if they are victims of a crime.
Many more crimes, Croze suspects, go unreported.
"Sometimes, when they come in here," he said, "you can see the fear."
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Inside his office at the Hispanic Outreach Center near downtown, Croze hears the stories. Women in abusive relationships. Workers denied pay by their employers. Victims of immigration scams.
Robberies are among the most common crimes reported to Croze. Many immigrants carry large amounts of cash because some banks don't accept international identification cards and many immigrants don't trust banks.
Police reports tell the story of how the robberies take place. One example: On March 30, a 44-year-old man, originally from Mexico, was riding a bike along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Two men were walking on the sidewalk. They separated to let him ride past.
"He started to ride between them," the report states. "And they both struck him several times in the face and knocked him off of his bike."
While he was sprawled on the ground, the men stole his watch, phone, bicycle and $40, the report states.
Croze hopes to organize an event at the center to inform residents about the dangers of carrying cash.
"Unfortunately," he said, "a lot of the bad guys know that a lot of people in the Hispanic community don't put money in the banks."
Domestic violence cases, and sometimes sexual assault cases, are also reported to Croze.
"There's a misconception of what a woman should take and not take. There's that misconception of, well, he's the man. What he says goes," Croze said. "I try to tell them: You can leave."
Scams are also among the reports. In August, a man distributing business cards in Clearwater told another man and his cousin, both undocumented immigrants, that a Department of Motor Vehicles employee in Broward County could get them driver's licenses for $1,000 each. The cousins traveled to Deerfield Beach and met a man outside a DMV office. They each gave $1,000 and their Mexican passports to the stranger, who told them to go inside the office for help.
"After waiting for some time, they asked the receptionist about their wait," a report says. "She told them that she had no idea what they were waiting for."
The stranger didn't work at the office. The men returned to Clearwater and reported the scam to Croze. The case remains under investigation.
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Many immigrants move to Clearwater from countries where government and police are viewed as abusive and corrupt. Once they're here, the fear continues.
"I let them know as soon as I can that it's not that way here in the United States," Croze said. "I'm not going to extort money from them."
On one occasion, a man visiting Croze's office for help asked him: Cuánto? How much?
"There's no fee," Croze replied. "Gratis. Free."
Many are also scared to report a crime because they are undocumented, said Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway.
"I don't care where you're from," Holloway said. "If you're a victim of a crime, you're a victim."
Sandra Lyth, chief executive of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, said having Croze work at the center is a major advantage.
"One of the reasons an officer is assigned here," she said, "is to make that person readily available in a nonthreatening environment where there are other supports available."
In addition to Croze's office, the center at 612 Franklin St. provides an array of services for the immigrant community, including victim advocacy, youth services, legal clinics, family advocacy, and occasionally, the Mexican consulate.
When the center opened its new building in 2002 next to the Clearwater Police Department, Lyth said she received some criticism about the location.
"I had people take me aside and say, this is not going to work," she said. "They felt that it was too close to the Police Department. There was too much lingering connection in the minds of the Hispanic community with local law enforcement … that trust would be just too hard to build."
But since it began in 2001, the Hispanic Outreach Center has provided more than 25,000 services, she said.
The Hispanic community has surged in Clearwater in the past decade. The 2010 census showed that Clearwater residents who identified as Hispanic increased by 56 percent over the 2000 number, totaling 14.2 percent of the city's population of nearly 110,000 residents.
"The numbers," Lyth said, "speak for themselves."
Clearwater police will soon have a second person, community liaison officer Michael Hatch, as a contact and resource for the Hispanic population in east Clearwater.
Neither Hatch nor Croze is fluent in Spanish, but both are learning, and they use translating tools the department purchased this year that connect officers with live interpreters. Staffers at the center also help Croze with translations.
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected]