MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Less than 3 percent of the officers who make up the Memphis Police Department are Hispanic. The number identified as Spanish-speaking is even less.
Ramona Jimenez and her family moved to Memphis 18 years ago. Originally from Mexico, they opened up a meat market on Jackson Avenue, but a few years ago it became the target of a crime.
"It was my son. They robbed him three years ago,” Jimenez told WMC Action News 5.
When Jimenez thinks back to that day she’s grateful her son was able to communicate with police.
"For me it's hard because I don't speak enough English,” said Jimenez.
Jimenez's story is part of a bigger story nationwide.
"It comes down to more than just language. It’s cultural competency, trust. That your police force reflects the community that you’re trying to serve,” said Latino Memphis Executive Director Mauricio Calvo.
Calvo estimates 80,000 Memphians identify as Hispanic or Latino. Many of whom struggle to communicate with police because of a language barrier.
"We don't know if the responding officer is going to speak your language, but then that officer is only going to take your report then it's going to be transferred to a detective who's going to follow-up on your case. Is that detective bilingual,” said Calvo.
According to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Memphis police have investigated thousands of crimes reported by Hispanic or Latino victims: More than 3700 in 2016, a jump to 4,415 in 2017 and then a slight drop last year to 4,249 cases.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings says MPD needs more Hispanic and Spanish-speaking officers.
"People feel comfortable talking to someone that they can identify with, that understands their culture, that speaks their language and I think we should work hard to try to duplicate that,” said Rallings in a sit-down interview with WMC.
Right now, the Memphis Police Department has 18 officers listed as Spanish-speaking; however, MPD says that’s not an accurate representation of how many actually speak Spanish. Officers are not required to “register” as Spanish-speaking, although there’s a $75 a month pay increase for officers who identify as being bilingual.
Data over the last six years shows an increase in the number of Hispanic officers with Memphis police. In 2014 there were 28. By 2017, the department had 40. This year, Memphis police have 50 Hispanic officers. As of June 30 of this year, Memphis police had a total of 2,082 commissioned officers.
Rallings says he’s pleased to see that number grow but acknowledges it could be better, citing recruitment as a challenge.
"The citizenship, the college requirement. We're challenged no matter where you come from and we know in certain populations the challenges are even bigger,” said Rallings.
Back on Jackson Avenue, Jimenez says she too is happy to see MPD trying to make a change. She knows it would go a long way.
"I think people would have more trust in police and it would really help,” said Jimenez.
Memphis police say they have four Spanish-speaking recruits currently in the academy. If and when they graduate they too can choose to take the test that would identify them as bilingual.