TAMPA — Jon Aragón knows firsthand that a language barrier keeps many Spanish-speaking crime victims from contacting law enforcement.
A director at the Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Aragón has spoken with a father of four who wrote a check to a plumber only to see the amount altered and to the mother of an 8-year-old boy whose bicycle was stolen from their backyard.
“Neither filed a police complaint for different reasons, but mainly because they don’t speak English,” said Aragón, 30.
Now, some law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay are working to bring down the barrier, most recently through an online form offered by the Tampa Police Department for reporting nonviolent crimes such as identity theft, phone scams, vandalism and check forgery.
All submissions are reviewed within 48 hours, except on weekends and holidays, and can be turned into official police reports.
“The Tampa Police Department wants to ensure our Spanish-speaking residents are able to benefit from the convenience and ease of filing a report online, in their language,” said Detective Rose Angelakopoulos, the department’s Hispanic liaison.
The number of Spanish speakers in the community is growing, Angelakopoulos said.
Of the 237,000 people identified as Spanish speakers in Hillsborough County, 94,000 speak English less than “very well,” according to an October 2015 Census report.
It’s important for crime victims to submit reports in their own words, said Aragón, a Spanish speaker whose parents are from Colombia.
“It gives many Hispanics the opportunity to feel more secure when they have to report a crime,” he said. “It also seems to me that it allows us to establish a better relationship with the police and the authorities of our community if they need to follow the case.”
An online reporting system is a start to help increase access and build trust between law enforcement and the Hispanic community, said Jeannie Vigil Calderin, 51, of the Hispanic advocacy group Somos Puerto Rico Tampa.
“I think it’s a good idea, but they should bring more bilingual people to work with the police,” Gomez said.
Call 911 with emergencies and serious crimes, local law enforcement agencies say. All have Spanish speakers or an interpreter service available.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has long offered an online crime-reporting form in Spanish, later expanding it to include services such as child registration. The office’s social media platforms also are available in Spanish, said spokesperson Merissa Lynn.
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A police online reporting system will be available in Clearwater soon, in Spanish as well as English, said police spokesperson Rob Shaw.
Other agencies have no plans for such a system, but emphasized ways they encourage Spanish-speakers to report crime.
“We do have several Spanish-speaking officers and translation services that can assist in person,” said Yolanda Fernandez, manager of the Community Awareness Division with the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Spanish-speakers can report a crime by calling the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office directly, or by asking for a visit from a deputy or visiting the office’s district stations. The Sheriff’s Office also has been offering staff a two-year Spanish language class since 2015. Four people graduated in June and another 10 are halfway through.
“If the person at the desk does not speak Spanish, we have several deputies throughout the county that do speak Spanish,” said Deputy Travis J. Sibley, a sheriff’s spokesperson. “If a Spanish-speaking deputy is unavailable, we can also use a translation phone line.
In Pasco County, the Sheriff’s Office relies on its Spanish-speaking staffers to take crime reports in Spanish.
“While we do not have an online program, we certainly have several bilingual deputies available on all shifts throughout the county, and deputies have access to translation services to assist in serving our citizens,” said Amanda Hunter, another sheriff’s spokesperson.
A different option for reporting crime online is Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay, where information is taken anonymously. Forms are in English but can be translated through Google Translate without leaving the page.