Wednesday news outlets in Connecticut and beyond were buzzing over unfortunate comments made by East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo on Tuesday. Asked what he planned to do to reach out to the Latino community after the FBI arrest of four East Haven police officers for racial profiling, he replied that he might have tacos for dinner.
The mayor subsequently acknowledged that the remark was derogatory and noted that it was made after a long day of fielding questions from local and national media. No one should be judged solely on one thoughtless comment made under stress, but it would be much easier to give the harried mayor a pass on this one had he presented — at any time since taking office three months ago — a thoughtful and credible plan for reforming his troubled police department and for developing positive relationships with his town's growing Latino community.
My daily work involves interaction with people from many continents, countries and cultures, so I appreciate the challenge of offering an effective welcome. I am frequently brought up short by the recognition that I am reacting out of a prejudice of which I was previously unaware, or by the realization that there are worlds of human experience of which I am ignorant. Painful as those moments may be, they are sources of insight and help me grow in my ability to be truly welcoming.
Far more troubling than the taco allusion, therefore, is the mayor's failure to concede the need for change. In light of the pending lawsuit against his town, I don't expect the mayor to acknowledge the full extent of the troubling behavior of his police department; but he could, and should, admit that there is a crying need for his administration to develop more positive relations with the Latino community.
East Haven officials have a long way to go to win Latino's confidence. They might try some of the following approaches for starters:
Know your constituents. The Latino population of greater New Haven, East Haven included, is very diverse, with representatives from 18 countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as Puerto Rico. Latinos are diverse in their immigration status (from the undocumented to the third-generation American), in their levels of education, professions, families — just the way every other hyphenated-American group is. And they don't all eat tacos.
Develop linguistic and cultural competence. As a high school French student, I had to memorize the saying: Pour bien connaître un homme, il faut savoir sa langue: To understand someone, you must know his language. Statistics show that a greater percentage of Latino immigrants are acquiring English fluency than did persons in earlier immigrant groups. Nonetheless, many immigrants are daunted by the difficulty of English pronunciation and expansive vocabulary. Many government agencies on all levels recognize the need to facilitate two-way communication with immigrant groups by hiring bilingual staff, using phone-based translation services and developing materials in the languages spoken by the people they exist to serve.
Work with community leadership. Members of the Latino community in and around East Haven have shown courage and initiative in speaking out against discriminatory policing. East Haven is also home to numerous businesses whose Latino owners are respected within and beyond the Latino community for their enterprise and achievements. These natural leaders are an invaluable resource for a town government trying to build bridges with a relatively new and growing population.
The findings of discriminatory policing released by theU.S. Department of JusticeCivil Rights Division as well as the arrest of four East Haven police officers clearly delineate the need for reform. All East Haveners have a right to a police department that is competent and professional. Town leadership can pursue a counterproductive policy of denial and foot-dragging, or it can seize this opportunity for transformative change.
Let's hope East Haven's leaders make the right choice from the menu.
Sister Mary Ellen Burns is a lawyer and director of Apostle Immigrant Services, a nonprofit agency based in New Haven that provides a range of educational programs and legal immigration services.