INDIANAPOLIS --- Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson had a confession to make to a group of mayors worried about how to serve the growing number of immigrants in their communities.
Branson, a 30-year officer, admitted that he once resisted doing the work needed to improve relations with people who often didn’t speak English or had a deep distrust of police.
“I put a wall up,” he said Friday at the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns’ Mayors Institute.
Eventually he decided that his obligation to protect and serve was paramount, he said.
“I had to get it in my head: I’m here for the whole community,” Branson said.
That decision lead to a series of efforts to expand community policing in the Latino community, which represents about one-third of Goshen's 32,000 residents. Strategies have included reaching out to Latino experts at the local college and enlisting the help of bilingual clergy.
The work of Goshen leaders to bridge the gap with the Latino community was the focus of a presentation to mayors of small towns and cities that, like Goshen, are rapidly becoming more diverse.
Indiana’s Latino population is just over 6 percent, but it's much higher in some communities where a shortage of workers in manufacturing plants created a demand for immigrants willing to work for lower wages.
A Purdue University report found that over the last two decades, immigrants moved to rural communities to work in agriculture and meat-processing plants. Nearly half of the state's foreign-born population is from Mexico.
And their numbers are growing. The Indiana Business Research Center says a Latino population of 422,200 will double in the next two decades. The Pew Research Center estimates about 85,000 of the state's Latino population may be here illegally.
Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner said small towns like his face significant challenges in working with immigrants.
More than 18 percent of the 6,000 residents of his small southern Indiana town are Latino. His police force is nearly all white.
“I’m having a hard time recruiting Latinos for our police department,” Spinner said. “It’s hard to find officers who are bilingual.”
While a scarcity of Spanish speakers is a significant issue, mayors gathered Friday said they're also about working with their local schools to increase English-language instruction for immigrant children.
A larger issue for many is the cultural divide, one that's often linked to a deep distrust of police among immigrants.
Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman talked about how his city’s efforts to address that divide began two years ago, after a spike in offenses stemming from distrust.
Undocumented Latino drivers were lying about their identities when stopped by police, or were fleeing the scene of accidents. Other immigrants – those here legally or not -- frequently ran away when approached by police.
Gilberto Perez, a social work professor at Goshen College, helped Kauffman and the local police understand the sources of that distrust.
One reason was rampant police corruption in some of their home countries. Another was the fear of what would happen if local police discovered that an immigrant or some of their family were here illegally.
“They feared the deportation process was going to start at the jail,” Kauffman said.
The problem of fear appears widespread.
A study last year by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a philanthropy focused on improving conditions for children, found two in three Latinos fear police will use excessive force against them.
That echoes the findings of a University of Illinois study that found 44 percent of Latinos are increasingly unlikely to report crime to their local police.
Branson, the Goshen police chief, said that kind of fear worried him, because it also keeps immigrants who are victims or witnesses to crime from coming forward to police.
The thought of immigrant children who may suffer abuse was part of what convinced him to embrace efforts to strengthen ties between his department and the Latino community.
“I thought, why would we let a child continue to be harmed because his parents are too afraid of being deported to come to us?” he said.