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Allentown police recruit homegrown Spanish-speaking officers

April 3, 2021 GMT

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) —

Allentown Police Officer Louis Santiago and his partner recently were called to a home where the kids were refusing to go to school.

Santiago, though a rookie, was suited to handle the situation.

He grew up on Allentown’s South Side. He attended one of the same schools, South Mountain Middle, as one of the children. He was able to make a connection with the youngster.

And he was able to connect with the children’s Spanish-speaking parents, because he spoke their language. He is one of 30 bilingual officers on the force of 216.

The city has been working harder recently to recruit its own, especially those who speak Spanish, to join the force. That’s a necessity, as a little more than half of Allentown’s residents are Hispanic. Cities nationwide are facing that same recruiting challenge.

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“When I get there and I can explain to them in a language that they can understand, it kind of eases down the tension,” Santiago told me. “It’s easier to build rapport with someone who can understand you.”

He is one of a few Allentown natives who recently were hired. Another, Gregorio Mora, also speaks Spanish.

Officials are seeking officers who know Allentown, who know its people, who have an emotional investment in making life better for them.

“I look for anyone that has a connection to Allentown,” Police Chief Glenn Granitz Jr. said. “I’m looking for someone who grew up here, went to school here, maybe their mom or dad lives here. I’m looking for somebody that wants to move here.

“I have found there is a distinct connection between having that connection of some kind with the city and having that investment of wanting to see Allentown succeed,” said Granitz, who grew up in Allentown, joined the force in 2001 and became chief in 2019.

That’s not a knock against officers who grew up elsewhere. They make up the majority of the police force and serve Allentown well. But it’s important to have your own blood represented. Allentown hasn’t had as much as in the past, though it is making progress.

The city wasn’t able to provide data for how many of its officers are Allentown natives. Mayor Ray O’Connell told me five of the most-recent 36 hires graduated from the city’s high schools — three from Allen, one from Dieruff and one, Santiago, from Roberto Clemente Charter School.

I reviewed the city’s news releases about previous recruits. Of the previous 54 new officers dating back to 2013, only two were referenced as graduating from the city’s high schools.

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A few decades ago, the classes looked a lot different. A single hiring class of 19 officers in 1991 had eight graduates from Dieruff or Allen.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect to see numbers like that again. But city officials are trying.

And their efforts are being noticed.

“Chief Granitz right now is probably making the best attempt I have seen towards trying to get the community to see that this is a career that’s good for everyone,” said Guillermo Lopez Jr.

Lopez is a Lehigh Valley Latino leader who has worked with police departments and other organizations locally and nationally to increase cultural awareness.

“I’m not suggesting that every officer in the city of Allentown has to be a Latinx person,” Lopez said. “But I am saying that every officer in the city of Allentown should be exposed to Latinx people with authority that are also in uniforms, that are in places of influence.”

While local candidates are sought, they aren’t given preference in the hiring process. They go through the civil service testing and review process. Candidates are not awarded additional points if they are bilingual; that’s something that should be changed nationwide to increase the diversity of police departments.

Granitz told me he has been working with the Civil Service Board on changes “that will assist us in hiring and attracting quality applicants, including those who speak various languages and/or have connections to Allentown.”

Santiago, 29, shared memories of South Mountain Middle School with the boy who didn’t want to go there. “Hey, how’s your locker?” he asked. “Do they still have the same old lockers there? I remember mine used to get stuck and I could never open it.”

He recalled a class where he could tinker with computers and other technology. “I remember that was one of my favorite classes growing up,” Santiago said.

He asked if Mr. Marcks, his sixth-grade science teacher, was still there.

“I’ll never forget, in his classroom, he had bearded dragons. We’d get there and he would let us feed them. I always looked forward to that class.”

When their talk was over, the kids went to school.

They probably would have gone after a talk with any officer. At that age, an officer’s presence is going to get your attention. But the fact that Santiago could relate so well to the situation helped.

Lopez knows the impact of that.

He remembers his first trip to Puerto Rico as a child.

“I was in awe when I saw so many people that looked like me, that sounded like me, in roles of influence,” Lopez said. “In roles of supervisors, the business owners, the people that ran the airport, police officers. ... I felt like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

Lopez is co-director of the Law Enforcement and Community Trust Building Program at the National Coalition Building Institute, which provides training on diversity, equity and inclusion. He also owns a consulting firm. He has trained and consulted with more than 1,400 police officers.

On April 12, Lopez will be co-hosting a virtual event for the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, “Trust Building with Law Enforcement.” Granitz and police chiefs from Bethlehem, Easton, Nazareth and Lehigh University are scheduled to participate.

Lopez said having homegrown officers helps to build a police force that can communicate with and relate to the entire constituency it serves, and give all residents a sense that they will be treated fairly.

“When I’m in Puerto Rico, it never happens to me that I have to think that I’m being treated a particular way because I’m Puerto Rican. That never enters my mind. Because everyone’s Puerto Rican.

“Because of some of the issues that have happened here, I always have to question it. I get that little voice sometimes.”

This isn’t the easiest time to be a police officer, or to recruit officers. The death of George Floyd and other people of color during confrontations with police inflamed the distrust that many communities have held.

Calls to reform policing have gained momentum. Public officials are being pressured to improve training and diversity in the ranks, and redirect police funding to invest in communities.

In line with that, Allentown officials changed their recruiting strategy recently.

“If we’re not encouraging young people from Allentown to be Allentown police officers, then we can’t really be a part of this systemic change that I think we’re all hoping for here,” Granitz told me.

Many officers speak or understand some Spanish, but not fluently. They lean on those who can.

“I get called all the time to different spots to help translate,” Santiago said.

He doesn’t mind. “A lot of things get lost in translation when they’re talking in English, so they can’t really explain what’s going on or how they feel,” Santiago said.

“When I talk to them in the same language, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. I feel like they’re more at ease because I can understand them better and I can relate to them more.”

To recruit more of its Spanish-speaking residents, officials are spending time in Latino communities to talk up being a police officer.

“We hit Allentown hard on this last recruiting drive,” Granitz said. “We were out at barbershops. We were walking 7th Street. We were at the McDonald’s.”

In May, for the first time, the city will offer its citizens police academy in Spanish.

Mayor O’Connell said the strategy applies to the entire city workforce.

“If we are now a majority-minority city, we have to hire people not only in the police department, but fire, EMS, finance department, parks and recreation, public works, that reflect the diversity of the city of Allentown.”

He’s proud the city recently named its first Hispanic fire chief, Efrain “Freddie” Agosto Jr., who graduated from Dieruff High School and joined the fire department 18 years ago.

“There you go. We grew our own,” O’Connell said. “We’re not just putting these people in their positions because of their race, but because they are well-trained, well-qualified. They have come up through the ranks. They believe in Allentown.”

The city is beefing up its efforts for officers to interact with students. Santiago recalls when a K-9 officer visited his class at Hiram W. Dodd Elementary School.

“Kids were so focused on the dog,” he remembered. “Oh, this guy gets to work with a dog all day, that’s awesome.”

The Police Athletic Program has expanded, Granitz said, and officials are working to create a formal mentoring program with high school students.

Santiago could have applied to be a police officer anywhere. “Allentown, all my family’s here. It just felt like home to me. Anywhere else, I would have felt out of place.”

He attended the city’s police academy from July through December. In January, he started his 16-week training program, riding with veteran officers.

Being a cop wasn’t his initial plan.

He graduated at the top of his class from Roberto Clemente Charter School, then got a business and marketing degree from Muhlenberg College. That landed him an accounting job.

After a taste of that world, he wanted something more.

“I felt that me looking at spreadsheets and doing audits all day wasn’t me reaching my full potential,” Santiago said. “You only get one life and you want to do as much as you can to make an impact.”

But what to do? He was looking for a way to help others.

He had gotten to know an Allentown police officer, Sgt. Christopher Hendricks, at his gym. He would see him arrive in his uniform.

“We would lift together every now and then. We would talk and I would tell him about how I wasn’t satisfied with my job and I wish I could do something else or do more with my life and he was like, ‘Hey why don’t you apply to be a police officer?’”

“I applied, thinking there’s no way. And here we are.”

Santiago was the first in his family to go to college. He paid his own way, working at Redners while in high school and at Wawa while at Muhlenberg.

He believes those experiences allow him to relate to those he encounters on the job.

“I think that it’s very important for people to see that this guy came out of the same place I did,” he said.

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