West Valley City • Despite natural noise from a crowd enjoying pizza, face-painting, balloons and games, the audience suddenly grew quiet at the Latino Crime Prevention and Public Safety Fair. It had just been asked if anyone had questions for police appearing onstage.
Explaining the long initial silence that followed at the event Saturday at the Utah Cultural Center, Kiko Cornejo, executive director of the Latino Community Center, later said Latinos come from many cultures where it is difficult to trust police or talk to them.
"In some countries, police aren't as trustworthy as they are here, and you just avoid them," he explained later. "And some people here may not have papers and aren't sure what will happen to them if they talk to police. Some come from places where you just don't report what you see."
After repeated pleas by Cornejo for any question, one woman finally timidly said she feels she was blamed unjustly for a car accident because she couldn't speak much English. What should she have done?
Police gave her advice in Spanish. With the ice broken, more questions followed, ranging from what documents are needed for a driver license to whether local police enforce federal immigration laws.
"Events like this help build bridges," said West Valley City Officer Franco Libertini, a native of Argentina.
He tried that by talking to the audience not just about police work but also about the American dream.
"A lot of people will say you can't become a police officer because you are not from here, or you can't get a college education or run for office. That's not right. Don't put that in your children's heads. Everything is possible."
Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Romero Martinez said, "It's more relaxed in a setting like this" where police officers and others are handing out goodies and helping with games. "We can talk freely. Otherwise, the only time they talk to us is when we are pulling them over for a ticket."
Cornejo said he has helped organize such events for 25 years.
"They can build bridges Â if police will participate." But he lamented, "This year I invited 54 police departments to participate, and only three did" from West Valley City, Park City and the Utah Highway Patrol. "Instead of bringing us closer together, it pushes us farther apart when they choose not to participate."
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, said such events are especially important amid the Legislature's recent push on immigration laws, which have worried Latinos.
"It's good for them to ask questions directly to law enforcement," she said. "Obviously, some people are too shy to ask their questions in front of everyone. But after a while, they feel comfortable approaching the officers personally."