Tustin Police Department’s Spanish Citizens Academy graduates Alex Sanchez, right, and Rodolfo Cazales, center, carries a uniform-shaped cake for the dinner to celebrate the completion at Community Center in Tustin on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Department’s effort to foster a relationship with immigrants, participants spent a few weeks learning about the police force. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tustin Police officer Diego Gomez, left, poses after receiving Spirit of Teaching Award after completing the department’s first Spanish Citizens Academy, an effort to foster a relationship with immigrants at Community Center in Tustin on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tustin Police Department’s Spanish Citizens Academy graduates pose with their certificates at Community Center in Tustin on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Participants spent a few weeks learning about the police force. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)
One of the participants who completed Tustin Police Department’s Spanish Citizens Academy, Victor Inurreta, shares his experience at Community Center in Tustin on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Participants spent a few weeks learning about the police force. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tustin Police Detective Gonzalez chats with Spanish Citizen Academy participants during the dinner to celebrate the completion at Community Center in Tustin on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Participants spent a few weeks learning about the police force. (Photo by Kyusung Gong/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Many of those who participated speak little English. Yet over the 10 weeks they spent mingling with law enforcement, no one asked for their proof of residency.
Thirty-five students got an up-close look at the Tustin Police Department during its inaugural Spanish Citizens’ Academy, an offshoot of the city’s 20-year program conducted in English. The academy teaches residents how they can partner with police to make their neighborhoods safer.
About 40 percent of Tustin’s 80,000 residents are Latino. “We were missing out on a large segment of our population,” Lt. Bob Wright said. “Our goal is to build bridges.”
On a recent evening, the graduates gathered for a ceremony at the Old Town community center. They took home not only diplomas but also a heightened awareness of their own roles in battling crime.
It starts with viewing police as allies rather than as antagonists, students said.
“I am not afraid now to call the police and ask for help,” said Jose Luis Ramirez, 45, a mechanic. “I feel that I am part of the police family.”
That takeaway is precisely the objective, said Officer Diego Gomez, who spearheaded Tustin’s program. “We assure people that we are not interested in their immigration status,” he said. “Our job is to help them.”
La Habra was the first city in the county, and remains one of the only in the state, to offer a citizens’ academy conducted in Spanish.
“It was hard to recruit people at first because the trust wasn’t there,” said Sgt. Jose Rocha, who helped launch the program in 2011. “But word of mouth spread that our intention was, in fact, simply to reach out to the community.”
Now La Habra’s annual Spanish Citizens’ Academy, capped at about 25 students per session, is more popular than the English counterpart. “It’s been very beneficial on both sides,” Rocha said. “People are much more willing to call when they see graffiti and narcotics activity.”
Huntington Beach has a similar academy for Spanish-speaking residents.
Retired Anaheim Police Captain Joe Vargas, who served as a liaison there for the Latino community, called such programs “invaluable.”
“Once people connect with cops as individuals, they actually like us,” Vargas said. “Those relationships become part of our tool box in dealing with crime.”
He said the “heated rhetoric of late” regarding undocumented immigrants can breed an atmosphere in which people shy away from interacting with police.
“Frankly, it’s very dangerous,” Vargas said. “We have to help people understand, especially in these times, that the primary mission of local police is not enforcement of immigration law. A community that disengages from the police — where people are afraid to call the cops — becomes a rich environment for crime.”
Tustin police officers began every Citizens’ Academy session with the message, “Mi casa es su casa.”
“We want everyone to feel more confident about calling us — or even just flagging us down on the street to say hello,” Gomez said.
Each class focused on a different topic — such as identifying and reporting domestic abuse, citizens’ legal rights, police protocol and child safety.
“They showed us the right car seats for children and how to put them in our cars,” said Evangelina Zamora, 41, a homemaker who moved to Tustin from Mexico four months ago.
Police advertised the program on social media and at local events.
Martha Montes, 50, a caregiver, learned about it at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the city for low-income residents. She was particularly interested in the discussion about child and spousal abuse.
“Now when I hear people in my apartment complex yelling, I am going to pay more attention,” Montes said.
For the most part, the men named target practice as their favorite class.
“Oh, man, it was fun,” said Hector Mosqueda, 32, an electrician. “I was actually pretty good. However, we weren’t aiming at someone moving around, like police have to do.”
Araceli Cazales, 60, was so happy with the Citizens’ Academy that she took it upon herself to purchase a custom-made “police uniform” cake for the final event. She also presented certificates of appreciation to the 10 officers who participated.
“The Tustin Police Department has motivated us to be more active in our community,” said Cazales, who runs an after-school program.
Tearing up, Jose Ramirez emotionally praised the program and its purpose.
“The police showed us such hospitality,” he said. “They treated us as humans, as equals.”
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