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Tampa Bay cops take steps to reach Hispanics, starting with social media

The challenge is greatest in Hillsborough County, where nearly a third of the population is Hispanic. One question for communities: Whether agencies do immigration enforcement.
Natalia Verdina, left, heads up the new social media program with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Among those featured in department videos is Deputy Lorette "Choli" Nordelo, right.
Natalia Verdina, left, heads up the new social media program with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Among those featured in department videos is Deputy Lorette "Choli" Nordelo, right. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published May 10

Deputy Lorette “Choli” Nordelo works the night shift patrolling the Town N’ Country area, where speaking Spanish enables her to connect with people she meets on the job.

“It is a blessing to be able to help the Latino people in my community,” says Nordelo, 31 who came to the United States from Ecuador at age 10. “Language barriers don’t matter. We will always find any way to help them.”

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is spreading the word beyond her patrol area that Nordelo and other Hispanic deputies are on the job. She’s featured in a new series of public service videos the agency is posting at its social media accounts. They carry universal messages to a Spanish-speaking audience — don’t fire guns in the air, don’t text and drive, be careful as kids return to school.

Social media is just the latest outreach tool for a Sheriff’s Office that has had a Hispanic Advisory Council for three decades. Natalia Verdina heads up the new program, called Se Habla Español. Similar efforts are underway at law enforcement agencies across Tampa Bay with growth in the number of Hispanics as a share of Florida’s population.

But the urgency is greatest in Hillsborough, where Hispanics are expected to increase from some 30 percent of the population now to 37 percent in 2045, according to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. With nearly 450,000 Hispanics, Hillsborough is home to more than all but three of Florida’s 67 counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange.

For too long, say some Hispanic advocates in Hillsborough, outreach to their immigrant communities has been limited to arresting criminals. In recent years, the focus has been shifting to crime prevention.

Related: SE HABLA ESPAÑOL: HCSO Presents New Spanish Video Series

“I think the sheriff has done better recently with undocumented populations, but this has happened so much and for so long that the trust of the community is not there,” said Alayne Unterberger, director of the Florida Institute for Community Studies, a nonprofit that helps immigrant communities in Town N’ Country and Wimauma.

Getting the message out will take more work by the Sheriff’s Office, said Nanci Palacios, 31, of Dover, deputy director of Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that helps immigrants and others living in poverty. Palacios, who works closely with the population she serves, said she hasn’t heard yet about any community policing efforts.

“Many times the issue about these programs is that our communities do not know about them,” she said. “Many of our people don’t trust the police. That’s why we need to start building bridges.”

Immigration enforcement

Helping in this challenge was a decision by the Sheriff’s Office to forego participation in a divisive federal partnership program that enlists local law enforcement agencies for immigration enforcement. Under this so-called 287(g) agreement, local agencies inform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they take people into custody who are in the country illegally and hold them for ICE up to 48 hours.

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In Florida, 49 local law enforcement agencies have 287(g) agreements with ICE, including the sheriff’s offices in Pasco, Hernando and Polk counties.

“As long as local police are working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement through 287(g) agreements, it will be difficult to build trust with members of immigrant communities, particularly those with undocumented immigrants,” said Elizabeth Aranda, an associate dean and sociology professor at the University of South Florida.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office isn’t part of the full 287(g) program but does partner with ICE on a limited version that also has drawn criticism from immigrant advocates. The Sheriff’s Office puts its jail personnel through a training program that enables them to serve ICE detention warrants to people in custody.

“Our program is limited to only jail personnel and we do not engage in round-ups or have agents on the street, a common misconception that we attempt to correct,” said Deputy Travis J. Sibley, a Pinellas sheriff’s spokesman.

Communicating this message is part of the sheriff’s outreach effort in a county where the Hispanic population of about 103,000 is expected to increase from 11 percent now to 15 percent by 2045.

So is working with the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater to help with testing and vaccination efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, Sibley said. The office also produces Spanish language versions of public service announcements, victim’s rights brochures and a book-reading program involving deputies.

The Tampa Police Department serves a community where the share of Hispanics in the population is nearly as high as in Hillsborough County overall, at 26 percent, according to Census figures.

The department has launched Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages in Spanish, using Facebook to highlight the duties of police personnel by featuring Spanish-speaking officers and civilian employees. Heading up the effort is Detective Rose Angelakopoulos.

“It gives a behind the scenes look at their day-to-day jobs,” she said.

Angelakopoulos, 33, came from the Dominican Republic with her parents as a child. Watching her family navigate normal day-to-day tasks taught her about the hurdles faced by those with a language barrier.

“I know what it feels like,” said Angelakopoulos, who became the department’s Hispanic liaison last year.

Tampa police also appear on Univision to talk about human trafficking, crimes and other topics, and are planning Spanish-speaking versions of their citizen’s academy and their online crime reporting site.

Working with churches

In Pasco County, the Sheriff’s Office includes Hispanic outreach in broader efforts. There is diversity among members of its Citizen Advisory Council and in the young people it works with through its two community-focused Officer Friendlies, said Amanda Hunter, a sheriff’s spokesperson.

Hispanics account for 16 percent of the Pasco population, at about 85,000, according to the University of Florida figures. The number is expected to grow to 25 percent by 2045.

“We also have strong relationships with the Hispanic faith-based community and often partner with them to host community food distributions and more,” Hunter said.

Spanish was the first language for Officer Jose Medina, 28, who was named Hispanic outreach officer a year ago by the Clearwater Police Department. Medina was born in North Carolina to Mexican parents. Clearwater has a population that is 18 percent Hispanic, according to the Census.

“There are many people who need help because they do not know how the system works, what the laws are and what rights protect them,” Medina said. “They are not alone. They can count on us.”

Medina’s work includes collecting school supplies and distributing food for low-income families. He also leads the department’s Youth Leadership Program.

The St. Petersburg Police Department serves a community with the smallest share of Hispanics among the major local law enforcement agencies, at about 8 percent. Still, the department is the only one of them where the share of Hispanic employees, about 10 percent, matches or exceeds the share of Hispanics in the community.

Most major local law enforcement agencies report that around one in 10 of their employees are Hispanic. The exceptions are the Pinellas sheriff at 7 percent, the Hillsborough sheriff with 19 percent and Tampa police with 16 percent.

“It’s important for our agency to represent the community and that includes our Spanish-speaking population,” said Yolanda Fernandez, St. Petersburg police spokesperson. “When it comes to safety and crime prevention messages, we need to be able to reach as many people as possible.”