Cooking cops are cultivating a community conversation

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Bluffton Police Chief Chris Chapmond, left, cooks while Capt. Scott Chandler stands ready with a bun. The two provided food at International/Latino Information Night at Bluffton High School. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

When an opportunity arose to participate in Bluffton High School's International/Latino Information Night, officers from the Bluffton Police Department not only met and spoke with those families in attendance, but also brought their outdoor grill.

The chefs? Chief Chris Chapmond and Capt. Scott Chandler.

"This is a chance to show our human side," said Chandler. "That's always one of our hurdles."

As they were keeping the hotdog tray stocked, other officers, including Officer Jason Rodriguez, listened to the speakers already interacting with the small audience.

"We're here to let them know that we want to keep them safe and talk about law enforcement matters," said Rodriguez, who is one of two Spanish-speaking officers currently on the force. "We've been creating ads for use in the media - TV, radio, newspapers - talking about traffic laws, letting people know there is a Spanish tip line. We've also been recruiting through videos on YouTube. We'd like to have more officers from the local area."

The event coordinator, school Vice Principal Andrea Ingle, said this was the second International Night at the high school with the aim of encouraging particularly the Hispanic community to get involved with the school.

"Since we are about 52 percent Hispanic, we have a necessity to connect with the parents," Ingle said. "Parents need to be involved with their children's education. Some already are, but we would like to see more."

The international aspect brings to the program Spanish-speakers such as Eric Esquivel, president and publisher of La Isla Magazine, as well as the Bluffton police, and representatives from the Technical College of the Lowcountry and Georgia Southern University.

The goal of the event was to talk with families about the challenges their teenagers are facing as well as encouraging greater involvement.

"La Isla partnered with the Beaufort County School District about seven years ago. The Hispanic population has grown about 40% district wide in past years and at the elementary level it's 60%," Esquivel said. "I grew up here and taught in the schools. Peers have said to me, 'We're seeing a lot of Hispanic kids but not a lot of parental involvement.' What we discovered years ago was we just need to have a helping hand."

Including the police in the program falls in line with the department's desire to build a stronger bond with the growing Hispanic population.

"This is one area in which we have not done all we can," Chapmond said. "We've created information packets about the police department, the county, the community - all in Spanish. They are an important part of our community. We're also hoping we can recruit officers from within the community."

TV interviews with La Isla and spending time with the area's Hispanic church congregations has resulted in really positive feedback, according to both Esquivel and Chapmond.

"They are amazing with their willingness to interact with the Latino community. They get the importance of the community, the growth," said Esquivel. "Their attitude is 'we're here to serve everybody' and we're here to help them. It was great to have them come out, bring food, meet with this emerging market. It's the first steps and they're making their own efforts. We're partnering so they can get in front of the people and let them hear from them."

Taking a break from cooking an endless supply of hotdogs, the chief, Chandler and other officers were introduced by Esquivel, who was the moderator for the program, presented in Spanish. After the event, Chapmond was optimistic that these gatherings will continue and grow.

"The families that we had an opportunity to interact with at International Night were very appreciative that we were there. They told us they valued the time we spent with them, answering questions and explaining our role in the community," the chief said. "I was impressed by each of them and I look forward to more opportunities for all of our officers to engage with the Hispanic Community. We can all learn a lot from each other."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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