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Local law agencies struggle to balance racial makeup, add bilingual officers
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Deputy Brian Gonzalez, left, speaks with Sgt. Glenn K. Watson while filing paperwork at the end of his shift Friday at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office precinct in Flowery Branch. - photo by Erin O. Smith

When law officers respond to a crime scene, language barriers can slow down an investigation if no translators are available.

“When you’re trying to talk to a victim, a Hispanic victim who may not speak any English, it’s very frustrating because you can’t help them. You don’t know what happened exactly,” Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said.

Both the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the Gainesville Police Department have searched for more bilingual and Hispanic officers in a culturally diverse city and county.

 Sheriff Gerald Couch said the department tries to spread the bilingual officers he has across all shifts, but a failure to communicate still gets in the way.

“It really hampers our being able to do our jobs,” he said.

The Times sought data on the racial makeup of both the police department and the sheriff’s office, and compared it to available census data for the general population of Gainesville and Hall. Both Couch and Martin said in a perfect world, those community demographics would be reflected in local law enforcement.

About 84 percent of sheriff’s office employees are white, with 4.7 percent Hispanic. According to 2013 census data, the county is more diverse, just 62 percent white and 27 percent Hispanic.

In the city’s police department, five of 94 officers are Hispanic, compared to a 41 percent Hispanic community in Gainesville, surpassing the white population of 39 percent, according to the 2010 census.

“We realized this 20 years ago that it would take awhile for the Hispanic community to come into law enforcement,” Martin said.

Martin said the number of applications is down across the board for all officers, with Facebook and word of mouth bringing the most potential candidates. Job fairs and other methods of finding applicants lead to a scramble among other law enforcement agencies for Spanish-speaking officers.

“We’re finally getting applicants for the Hispanic community that are bilingual, which is very hard to do,” Martin said. “They could go to DeKalb County, Gwinnett County, (Atlanta Police Department) because their tax base is so much higher than ours.”

That higher tax base correlates to higher salaries that the sheriff’s office and the city police department can’t match.

“When you’re at a job fair, you’re competing with other agencies such as Gwinnett County, Forsyth County — they pay 12 to 15 percent more than we do or have better benefits — it’s hard to compete in that type of arena,” Couch said.

Martin’s main point she argues against applicants going to larger agencies is the tight-knit nature of smaller departments.

“We know each other’s names. If you go to (Atlanta Police Department), you may not know who the next fellow is down the road, and to a lot of officers that means a lot,” Martin said.

Martin took the interim chief position Aug. 29 after Brian Kelly resigned. The Times obtained documents detailing the racial makeup of the department for Aug. 26 and January, which showed an increase of three Hispanic officers since Martin took the leadership role.

Norma Hernandez, who has known Martin for 20 years, said she worked to introduce Martin to members of the Hispanic business community when she was named interim chief. As a result of the meetings and discussions, Hernandez said she and the Hispanic community feel more embraced by law enforcement.

In Hall County, the black community represents 8.1 percent of the total population, while 10.8 percent of Sheriff’s Office employees are African-American. In Gainesville, 5.3 percent of officers are African-American in a 15.4 percent black community.

High-profile incidents such as the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have sparked conversations nationwide regarding local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Retention of officers, particularly when losing them to higher-paying departments, creates fiscal setbacks for local police forces trying to achieve diversity.

“Every person we hire is an investment, and when they leave, we lose that investment,” Couch said.

That investment can be in thousands of dollars per officer, which continues to stack up when officers leave.

Couch said he hopes to make a presentation to county officials about the issue to try and keep officers from slipping away.

“With the economic climate that the county’s in right now, I know it’s difficult. But at some point, we, the county leaders, are going to have to acknowledge this issue and deal with that,” Couch said.

Though social media has helped bring in new applicants, the Hispanic and bilingual officers already in uniform can serve to attract even more.

“They’re our best ambassadors,” Couch said. “They talk to other people in the community and get them interested. I think we’ll continue to see that. I certainly hope so.”

Questions about Hall County Sheriff’s Office job opportunities can be made in person at the Hall County Government Center at 2875 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville.

Applications for the Gainesville Police Department can be found at 311 Henry Ward Way.

Martin said events like a citizens police academy offer Gainesville residents a look into law enforcement and helps build relationships. The next citizens’ academy starts April 14, with applications available next month.

Ultimately, Couch said, those relationships with the community increase officer safety, decrease liability and provide for better community policing.

“It gives us a heightened awareness and understanding of the differences in our communities and helps build stronger relationships through trust and respect,” he said.

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