Building trust (copy)

A resident hugs Lydia Cotton (center), a liaison between North Charleston police and the Hispanic community, in 2009 as an officer walks through a predominately Hispanic apartment community on Stall Road. The police recently revived efforts from a decade ago to reach out to Hispanic residents. Cotton was named earlier this year to a police advisory group. File/Staff

North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess remembers a homicide that galvanized him into making a difference in one of the city's fastest-growing communities.

Burgess said he can't forget seeing the victim, a 24-year-old Hispanic man, who was shot to death on Stall Road near Johnson Cemetery. The 2007 incident occurred amid a crisis that saw the city's Latino residents falling victim to robberies, assaults and other violent crimes. Just a week earlier, another Hispanic man had been fatally stabbed at a mobile home park on the same street.

Starting when he was a lieutenant in 2001, Burgess was in charge of efforts to reach out to North Charleston's Spanish-speaking residents and collaborate on programs credited with strengthening community ties. But many of those programs have since been phased out, and with the city's Hispanic population continuing to grow, Burgess and others said the time is right to step up their efforts again.

"We all are North Charleston citizens," the chief said. "I know that the people here love this city. But to have this city be (what) we know it is ... we have to realize that we've got to care for one another." 

It was an utter lack of compassion and humanity that Burgess said stood out to him about the homicide on Stall Road.

"They had pulled all his pockets out of his pants," he said. "That he got killed was enough, but to treat a human being that bad, that really troubled me."

Changing demographics

Drive along Remount Road, Rivers Avenue or Ashley Phosphate Road, and you will pass businesses hawking tacos and money orders and brightly colored packages of Bimbo brand bread. 

They're easy to miss along the busy roads. Often small and inconspicuous, these shops have sprung up since the 2000s, opened by Spanish-speaking immigrants striving for a piece of a better life.

And these businesses are also credited with helping to revitalize areas of the city that had suffered from blight and increasingly violent crimes.

In 2009, North Charleston's Hispanic population was 7,815, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2016, that number had grown to 10,686.

It's communities like these, with still relatively small but growing minority populations, that are often ignored by their neighbors, said Diana Saillant, a small-business owner and president of the Hispanic Business Association in Charleston, a nonprofit that was founded in 2015 to promote Hispanic entrepreneurs. 

But ignoring this population comes at the detriment of everything from schools to municipal coffers, Saillant said.

"They want to pay taxes," she said. "They want to do everything right."

For her part, Saillant said she and her nonprofit are working to form partnerships with organizations, such as Lowcountry Local First, that will help young entrepreneurs. Spanish language workshops are planned as well as other events. 

But local officials also need to pitch in and simplify the process for starting a business, she said. 

Saillant pointed to her experience setting up a language consulting firm.

"I have an MBA, and when I started my own business, (the process) was confusing," she said. "This was me, with a business degree."

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North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess (left) and City Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome, who walked together during a recent anti-violence march, said the city needs more programs to reach Hispanic community members. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Looking to history

Beginning around 2001, North Charleston police worked to fight the growing problem of violence committed against the city's Hispanic residents.

In many cases, victims didn't come forward, either because they didn't know how to approach an officer or because they didn't trust police, Burgess said.

To strengthen connections with those residents, Spanish-speaking officers had decals placed on their patrol vehicles stating "Hablo espanol (I speak Spanish)," he said.

The department also set up community meetings, and periodic events, known as crime prevention information tents, where Hispanic residents could talk with Spanish-speaking officers and connect with resources provided by Medical University Hospital, code enforcement officers, local banks, the S.C. Department of Social Services and other organizations. 

By this decade, these programs and initiatives had been eliminated or otherwise allowed to expire, something Burgess and community leaders such as Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome say they're planning to fix. 

Placards will be placed on Spanish-speaking officers' vehicles, the chief said. 

"It's (comforting) for them to know that (the) officer can communicate with them, but also lets them understand that we as a department, as a city, care about everybody," Burgess said. "That was one of the things that we did then that we're going to be doing a whole lot more of now. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking officers now."

Community meetings and the information tents are also on their way back, with the relaunch scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 23 at the Alston Arms Apartments at 2410 Alston Ave., Jerome said. 

A new path

North Charleston's public officials and community leaders said they're confident in the foundation laid by their previous outreach efforts.

Rhetoric about immigrants and a tightening of policies under President Donald Trump's administration have deepened fear in those communities. But North Charleston officials such as Burgess said they believe their new programs will help strengthen the trust that’s been built up over the years.

In late 2017, the city held a session of its Citizens Public Safety Academy in Spanish for the first time. The class of 30 participants was its largest ever, according to Jerome and other city officials. 

For Lydia Cotton, who runs the Art Pot Multicultural Center in Hanahan and serves as a liaison between Hispanic residents and North Charleston officials, the overwhelming participation was a sign that residents want a deeper connection with their city.  

Born in Puerto Rico, Cotton came to South Carolina in 1989 but said she wasn't involved in the community for quite some time. After she was diagnosed with cancer, her perspective changed, and she was inspired.

"I realized that in my home, Puerto Rico, I would never have the opportunity that I do here," Cotton said. "That opened my eyes to realize that it's all about the people."

Recently, she was appointed to serve as the first Hispanic member of the Citizens' Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations, which formed after a North Charleston officer fatally shot Walter Scott. She still meets regularly with Burgess and other North Charleston officials.

The city has been a good partner, but despite past efforts, there is still a large degree of fear and distrust of the government in the Hispanic community, she said. Families can feel trapped because there are mixed messages coming from local and federal governments.

"This is a long haul," Cotton said. 

The key will be to keep building bridges and educating the Hispanic community, she said. The more they engage, the more success and voice they will have.

Someday, Cotton dreams of having local elected officials of a Hispanic background, a Latino City Council member and a Latino school board member.

"We need somebody to represent us in every public arena," she said. "We want to be a multicultural community."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.