Undocumented people fear talking to police. How a new Lexington sheriff hire helps

David Nieves
David Nieves Courtesy Lexington County Sheriff's Department

Monday was the first day for Lexington County Sheriff’s Department’s first bilingual victim advocate, David Nieves, but he is not new to the work.

Nieves, a deputy, returned to the sheriff’s department after a hiatus from his 32-year career in law enforcement. He decided to apply for the role of bilingual victim liaison although he had retired recently, he said, because he believed in the goal of this new position.

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said the new hire is meant to “bridge the communication gap” by focusing on building positive relationships in the Hispanic communities, where victims of crimes are often silenced by fear.

“It lines up with the department’s mission to work as a professional law enforcement team to build relationships with those we are sworn to serve,” Nieves said in a statement.

He was previously sergeant over the Community Services Bureau in the South Region of Lexington County. He has been a part of the South Carolina Victim Immigrant Network since 2014, and will use that resource to advocate for victims and educate them about their rights.

Nieves also worked with the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center to assist crime victims who have language barriers by bridging the gap between them and law enforcement.

“I plan to build stronger relationships in the Hispanic community by establishing partnerships between the Sheriff’s Department, community organizations and faith-based groups,” Nieves said.

He will also host seminars in the community to continue strengthening the trust between the sheriff’s department and Hispanics, particularly Spanish-speakers.

The sheriff’s department announced in late October that it had received grant money — a $325,593 slice of some $46 million awarded statewide — from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office in order to hire someone to work specifically with the Spanish-speaking community.

Koon called Nieves’ return a “grand slam,” saying Nieves has the law enforcement experience as well as the community expertise to get the work done. Part of Nieves’ job will be to establish communication with local religious organizations, businesses and community groups — the places Hispanics and Latinos frequent and rely upon for information, support and resources.

“He has a lot of those connections already in place,” Koon said. “He’s not a new face, he’s just wearing a different hat.”

Though there are officers within the sheriff’s department who speak Spanish, spokesperson Adam Myrick said, Nieves will focus exclusively on easing relations between crime victims who speak Spanish and law enforcement.

Hiring victim advocates is common practice at most law enforcement agencies, and that includes bilingual liaisons, Myrick said.

Over the past several years, police departments throughout the country, including in immigrant stronghold states such as Texas and California, have seen a drop in reports of violent crime in Hispanic communities.

Victims may fear that if they go to police to report a crime, their own immigration status will be called into question, leading to deportation. The risks, for some, outweigh the benefit.

The Hispanic and Latino population make up about 6 percent of Lexington County’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 population estimates.

An estimated 37 percent of the immigrant population in South Carolina was undocumented in 2014, according to Pew Research Center data.

In Lexington County, where the sheriff’s department has taken part in a U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act program that trains local law enforcement to act as immigration officers, community advocates say there is mistrust.

Koon said he does not see Nieves’ hiring as at odds with the department’s participation in that ICE program, called 287(g). In Lexington County, the program’s protocol is only initiated when someone is arrested, charged and screened in jail, he said, and every person is asked the same questions.

“Every inmate … gets screened, no matter what background they are,” he said.

The county does not use the model that allows a task force to scour the streets for people who they think may be undocumented, Koon said.

Police and other experts have said that a renewed focus on immigration, more aggressive ICE operations and a general anti-immigrant sentiment has had a chilling effect on communities where there are undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom are Hispanics.

In March 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department released data on the decline in reported crimes by the Hispanic community. Reports of spousal abuse dropped almost 10 percent from the year before and reports of rape dropped by 25 percent. Houston’s police and the Camden County Police Department in New Jersey also reported declines in reported crimes in largely undocumented communities. Denver and Philadelphia saw similar decreases, according to reporting by FiveThirtyEight.

Hispanics and Latinos were the group most targeted by hate crimes, according to a 2017 federal survey, yet more than half of the country’s hate crimes went unreported.

For law enforcement, that’s a problem not only because it cuts down on the information police have to work with, but also because unreported crimes can evolve into worse crimes.

Javier Figueroa was a helicopter pilot with the police in Puerto Rico before coming to the Richland County Sheriff's Department. He went through Hurricane Maria and helped rescue stranded people after the storm.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.