Late last week rumors were circulating on Facebook that officers were stopping cars near 21st and Arkansas and asking drivers for papers to prove they were U.S. citizens.
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“IF YOU’RE UNDOCUMENTED AVOID THE AREA AT ALL COSTS,” stated one widely shared post.
Wichita police Officer Paul Cruz started receiving calls that morning from community members asking what was going on. He quickly determined that it wasn’t the Wichita police. So he put out a statement on the police department’s new Facebook page in Spanish that was shared more than 150 times.
“I want to clear up a rumor,” Cruz wrote. “We are not in the area of 21th street and Arkansas, there’s no reason to be scared or cause alarm in our community.” Cruz gave out his direct phone line and told people to call.
Cruz later issued a similar statement live on video in Spanish that was shared 450 times. His post received several hundred more shares than any posts on the department’s English-language Facebook page that week.
“Thank you to the police for this video,” one woman wrote in Spanish. “So we can go out without fear to get bread every day. May God bless you.”
The incident highlighted the increasing effort the Wichita Police Department has made and the success it has had in reaching out to Spanish speakers in Wichita.
But it also shows some of the challenges it will face in the coming year, as President Donald Trump changes how immigration is enforced.
Wichita police do not enforce federal immigration laws, but not all community members, especially those with limited English proficiency, understand the difference. Police say that building trust with citizens and non-citizens is important for them to get crucial information and fight crime.
At the center of the effort is Cruz, who started Facebook and Twitter pages for Wichita police in Spanish. He answers questions on two Spanish-language radio stations. And he does a daily media briefing for Spanish television that is also posted on social media.
Nearly one in every five residents in Wichita identifies as Hispanic, and a large percentage of them speak Spanish.
Cruz gives out his phone number liberally and, in November, started holding monthly meetings at community centers and schools.
“I have literally driven to almost every church that I can think of,” Cruz said.
The community meetings are similar to the dozens of meetings held monthly across the city by police, he said. But before they weren’t offered in Spanish. At the first meeting, he said, a dozen people showed up. At the next one, about 25 came, and at the most recent one, about 50.
Most of the questions he takes are pretty typical, he said. A neighbor is playing loud music or another neighbor’s leaves are piling up. One questioner asked who would receive a ticket – the driver or passenger – if the passenger didn’t have his seat belt on.
This past week, after a robbery at a taco truck, Cruz traveled with the local beat cop and met with the truck’s owners to talk about preventing future robberies with better lighting and more cameras.
He’s become a kind of celebrity: People will greet him as “Officer Cruz” even when he’s off duty, and when he goes on the radio, many of the callers just want to thank him for his work.
Cruz grew up in Los Angeles during a time of gang violence. And after a video surfaced of Rodney King being beaten by four police officers, riots erupted.
“I got to see liquor stores being burned down, community members fighting in my street,” Cruz said. “I saw highway robbery, and a guy robbing a pizza man in my front yard when I was a kid.”
But inside the house, his dad raised him to respect authority, he said: “You respect your country, you respect your laws, your people, and you always follow your Christian faith,” he was taught.
Both of his parents were immigrants who earned their citizenship after an amnesty law was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. He grew up speaking Spanish at home.
Cruz moved to Wichita in 2004 with his dad, who was starting a Christian ministry, and after working for a Spanish-language TV station, he applied to become a police officer.
He started working in an area that was predominantly Spanish speaking. But the department doesn’t have as many bilingual officers as it would like. So Cruz said he was often called away from his regular shift to translate.
Cruz adjusts his Spanish, from typical Mexican, “Que tal, amigo?,” to something more southern, like, “Miravos, como esta?,” depending on who he’s talking to.
“Just knowing these bits of information opens up lines of communication,” Cruz said. “Because when you are a victim of a crime, it’s already difficult enough to be in that situation. Imagine trying to communicate that in a way that is foreign to you.”
About a year ago, Cruz said, just as he was starting to do media briefings in Spanish for the first time, an immigrant shared intelligence with him about a Mexican drug gang that led to seizures and arrests.
Sometimes Cruz will share his own life story, as a way to let people know that he understands what it’s like growing up between two worlds.
The Wichita Police Department has made it clear it does not have the resources, expertise or authority to enforce immigration law. “Frankly it’s not a local problem,” Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said in a recent video posted on the department’s Spanish-language page.
Not everyone understands the difference between Wichita police and immigration officers. Cruz, during a radio appearance last week, described to callers the special “ICE” logo on the vest that immigration authorities wear.
Federal immigration priorities already have changed through an executive order by President Trump that could result in some immigrants, who think they are safe now, being deported.
But just how these changes will be implemented isn’t yet clear, according to local immigration lawyers.
Immigration agents are continuing investigations and detaining immigrants who have specific warrants out, similar to what happened under the Obama administration.
But Wichita’s immigrants don’t know when changes to enforcement will happen and are trying to quickly figure out if the latest detention is a sign of changes in immigration enforcement.
A couple of days after the first rumor, immigration agents showed up at the home of a local woman, looking for her husband. The immigration authorities shouted “Police” at her door and didn’t say they were immigration officers. She didn’t let the agents inside, but they later pulled over a car that her husband was riding in.
Although the woman is a citizen, she wants to remain anonymous for fear of hurting her husband’s case.
Her husband has had traffic tickets, she said, but didn’t think that would make him a priority for deportation. But because he had overstayed his visa by more than six months and had been convicted of driving without insurance, he was a priority for deportation, according to Shawn Neudauer, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The woman said she thought Wichita police had to have helped immigration agents find her husband, though she had no evidence to support her fear, and Wichita police denied any involvement.
Because he’s so accessible, Cruz thinks most people will continue to reach out to him for help and advice during this time. But rumors about what immigration is up to are becoming more numerous.
“It’s going to be challenging in relationship building because, unfortunately, people lump us all in the same boat and we’re not,” Cruz said.