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Latino Activists, Law Enforcement Officers Reflect On Tough Year

Image: Memorial for two police officers killed in Brooklyn

People gather for a candlelight vigil for two police officers who were killed the day before, in Brooklyn, New York, Dec. 21. JUSTIN LANE / EPA

NEWARK, NJ -- As the year closes both young Latino activists and Latino law enforcement officials are thinking hard about how they can bridge the relationship gap between law enforcement and the communities they work in.

Following the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, young Latinos were among the many who gathered in street protests and rallies to speak up against what they see as a racial divide and abuse at the hands of police and the justice system. But after the killing of two New York City police officers - one of them Latino - at the hands of a troubled individual who cited Ferguson and Staten as a reason to kill officers, many feel the divide is even greater now.

Brianna Sarabia, is managing editor of The Frequency, a forum for exchanging ideas, opinions and activist art that is part of the non-profit group Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. The national organization advocates against what they say is racial profiling at the hands of the police as well as against senseless gun violence.

Sarabia, a 25-year-old Mexican-American from Los Angeles, said by phone to NBC News she joined activism because even though she has not experienced any sort of police harassment, her friends and her father have.

“These stories kept coming and coming and I wanted to get involved because we’re at a point where something has to change because it not only harms the black community but the also the Latino community.” Sarabia hopes that some tangible changes, such as police accountability and thorough investigation of police brutality cases, come from the protests.

Jaime Hermosillo, a Chicago resident, said he understands the need for people to protest and get angry about cases like Ferguson and Staten Island. He said he experienced racial profiling from a police officer at a place where he was supposed to feel most comfortable - his university.

Image: Jaime Hermosillo sits in Quincy Market in Boston, Mass.
Jaime Hermosillo sits in Quincy Market in Boston, Mass., during his time at Boston University. Courtesy Jaime Hermosillo

“I was hosting a party in my dorm for some of my friends and the police broke it up,” he said, speaking about a party he held while at Boston University. “They asked me what organization the party was for and I was confused."

“The officer was like ‘is this the Latino club? Because you all look the same’ and I thought that was so racist,” said Hermosillo.

Tyler Toledano, 19, also a Boston University student, has been involved in protests in the greater Boston area. He said he understands both sides of the situation - he is a minority and his father is a Boston police officer.

Image: Tyler Toledano and his board members of Alianza Latina
Tyler Toledano, (Left) and his board members of Alianza Latina, student group at Boston University. Tyler Toledano

“I think that it comes down to individuals. I grew up watching my father and in my mind police officers are supposed to be held to a high standard, but I think what happened with Mike Brown and Eric Garner is disgusting,” he said.

Latinos in law enforcement recognize relations between members of the community and the police are complicated.

Antonio Hernandez has been a New Jersey police officer for 16 years and is currently the president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers.

“I grew up in an inner city. I know at times police can get aggressive and I realize that. But these protests aren’t the answer and neither is physically fighting the police or threatening to shoot the police officers,” he said.

“I was so disheartened when reading social media posts. I pray this is not the sentiment of the masses,” he said about reading Facebook comments on his newsfeed from protesters.

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He thinks a more effective way to solve the ongoing problem would be to have community leaders and law enforcement sit down and air their grievances to come to a common solution.

The Puerto Rican police officer from Paterson, New Jersey says one of the reasons for such discontent from communities toward law enforcement comes from the lack of education provided to them about what police officers are trained to do.

This education often comes from community policing programs that allow officers to build relationships with the communities they work in. Hernandez said many of these programs are diminishing because of a lack of economic resources.

“Each community is different and has its own issues at the local level,” he said. “We need to spark a conversation between law enforcement and communities to outline certain values and performance the community expects from law enforcement. And vice versa.”

Image:
An NYPD police officer stands at a makeshift memorial near the site where officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. John Minchillo / AP

Anthony Chapa is executive director of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, (HAPCOA), the oldest and largest national organization of law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

“It is important to encourage and protect the right to protest peacefully; however, it is equally important to foster open dialogue with community and public leaders about meaningful systemic changes,” said Chapa to NBC News.

At their 41st Annual National Training Symposium, HAPCOA put out a statement recognizing the very real tensions between community members and the police.

“The events which transpired in Ferguson and cities throughout the United States are indicators of the deep seated resentment among community members who believe their concerns are not being viewedas valid, worthy of attention, or consideration.”

Former Morris County, New Jersey district attorney and civil rights litigator Robert Bianchi, who has worked with Latino communities for decades, said this is the greatest polarization between communities and the police he has seen in his 26-year career. Bianchi said he has not seen this anti-police sentiment since the 1980s. "I think we are taking a step backwards," he said.

Bianchi said that like any profession, there are people who "fall through the cracks" and cause harm. Bianchi said there needs to be a balance between supporting what the police do and weeding out certain officers and retraining certain police behaviors.

During his time as Morris County D.A. he created a centralized warning system that flagged police officers who had received several complaints from community members.

But Bianchi also urges members of the community to respect police officers and not resist arrest. "I feel that people need to learn to follow the law."

For civil rights and Latino activists, the killings of the two New York City police officers and the heightened tensions of the last few weeks point to the need to urge for calm while still seeking to address real issues between the police and the communities they serve.

"We truly believe that violence solves nothing and that we all must work to maintain peace if we are going to move forward," said Million Hoodies For Justice national policy director Pete Haviland-Eduah.

"I think this movement is going to keep going since there is so much momentum right now and I don't think people are going to give up until something has changed," said Million Hoodies' Brianna Sarabia.