Arizona Republic
May 30, 2007

Author: Amanda Soares, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

The window was open, the bed was still made. Mesa mother Elizabeth Serna woke to find that her 15-year-old daughter hadn't slept home that night.

"I was scared," said Serna, a Hispanic immigrant who does not speak English.

Serna immediately called police and a bilingual attendant told her it was still too early for anything to be done. The girl hadn't been gone long enough.

Hours later, Serna called police again.

But this time Serna waited 20 minutes before someone bilingual could help her.

"It was important that they sent someone who could help me right away,"
Serna said. "I was worried ... I didn't know where she was."

Neighbor Todd Selleck said he was disappointed with police's delay in responding to Serna's call.

"When they finally sent someone out here, the cop they sent wasn't bilingual either," Selleck said. "(The officer) was at a loss, we were at a loss and
(Serna) was distraught."

Serna's daughter, who had left on her own, eventually came home safely.

"This is a perfect example of why you need enough people to reflect the community you are serving," Mesa Police Chief George Gascon said.

Gascon said the department is working on hiring more Spanish speakers because just 118 out of the 1,435 sworn and civilian police personnel are proficient in Spanish.

But it's not easy, said Holly Hosac, a Mesa police spokeswoman.

"Even outside of law enforcement, it's a challenge to find people who are bilingual," Hosac said.

Gascon said the department is driven by goals rather than quotas to measure improvement in diversity.

"Diversity is critical ... in this organization," Gascon said. "We're going in the right direction, our goal is to continue to improve."

Diversity in Mesa

City Manager Chris Brady said public safety departments must be a priority in diversity efforts since its employees are usually in direct contact with residents.

"We challenged the fire and police chiefs to reach to minorities," Brady said.

Napoleon Pisano, a member of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, said police need to continue to adapt to the needs of Mesa's Hispanic population so that "the community will stop seeing the police as an enemy."

Although he has seen improvements since Gascon's arrival, Pisano said the department still has a lot to improve.

"It goes back to basic customer service, the police needs to be able to communicate with their customers," he said.

Mesa police's 3-month-old Community Partnership Program is an attempt to deal with the language barrier between police and residents.

Through the program, Mesa police are holding forums that open conversation with different community groups including ethnic, religious, business and senior groups.

"Sometimes people don't come forward to tell us what's going on," said Community Partnership Coordinator Denise Traves. "We want to make sure we are establishing a good relationship with the community."

Elizabeth Cruz, pastor of the 130-member Iglesia Palabra de Vida in Mesa, said she was glad to participate in forums with police staff.

"My point of view of police completely changed after (the community forums)," Cruz said. "We're very happy to work with them."

Cruz said monthly meetings helped clear out misunderstandings between police and church members, and foster a sense of cooperation.

The team provides diversity training not only to members of the department, but also to Mesa teenagers, Hosac said.

Diana Tapia, also a Mesa police spokeswoman and diversity team member, said diversity team members are part of police staff holding forums in the community.

"Knowing why a certain culture does what they do is our biggest goal in the diversity team," Tapia said.

Tapia also said the team attends cultural events in the city, including a Cinco de Mayo festival and Martin Luther King parade.

"Some people surprised that we care enough to go out there and spend the day with them," Tapia said.

CAPTION: George Gascon
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Mesa Republic West
Page: 6