ALBANY PARK — Frustrated over seeing the same faces at CAPS meetings, two North Side aldermen approached Cmdr. Elias Voulgaris of the Albany Park District about holding a gathering specifically aimed at engaging the Latino community.
The result of their effort: the first-ever Hispanic Beat Meeting, held Wednesday night at Horner Park.
"We need you, that's the bottom line," said Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), who spearheaded the meeting, along with Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).
"You are the fabric of our community," Mell told those in attendance with the help of a Spanish-language translator. "What would be vital would be your participation."
For longtime Albany Park resident Veronica, who preferred not to give her last name, the outreach was appreciated, particularly in the wake of recent shootings.
The meeting gave her confidence to talk and speak up, she said through a translator.
"Years ago there were worse problems than now, and there was no one to guide us on how to talk to the commander," said Veronica, a Mexican immigrant who's lived in Chicago for 20 years.
Building trust was a key goal of the gathering, Voulgaris said.
"We are not ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], we are not border patrol, we are not immigration," the commander emphasized.
"I want to make sure there isn't any hesitation because of that," he said.
"We need to make sure our residents aren't afraid" of calling police, Ramirez-Rosa said. "Let's be that strong group of people fighting crime together."
Other barriers to Hispanics engaging with police include a fear of gang retaliation, according to Veronica.
She spoke of an outdoor meeting between police and neighbors that sparked payback in the form of gang members bashing in car windows along Albany, Argyle and Lawrence avenues.
"I'm afraid for myself and my children," she said.
Wednesday's forum also highlighted the gulf between English-speaking residents who know how to access services via 911, 311, CAPS, civic organizations or their alderman's office, and immigrants who don't even know when meetings occur, what their alderman does or how to report basic issues like potholes.
Jessica, an attendee who preferred not to have her last name used, said both police and elected officials need to provide more information in Spanish.
"They should have translation equipment at meetings," she said, as well as translate handout materials.
Mell's chief of staff, Jason Hernandez, who is fluent in Spanish, acknowledged it's a challenge to communicate information to non-English-speaking constituents.
To spread the word about Wednesday's meeting, organizers blanketed the community with fliers, posting them at train stations and leaving stacks at Latino businesses, as opposed to relying on more common outlets for announcements, like the ward's newsletter or the Facebook pages of civic groups, he said.
To address the information gap, Mell's office is working on creating a Spanish version of the alderman's weekly newsletter, Hernandez said.
Both of the aldermen and the commander declared Wednesday's meeting "a good start," with Voulgaris promising the gathering wouldn't be a one-time event.
"We're going to make this a regular occurrence," he said.
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