Google Voice Opens Public Safety Line for Madison's Latino Community

Learn about Latino community policing efforts by MPD and Dane County's Amigos en Azul special police unit, and how the program has grown.

The Amigos En Azul public safety program in Madison, Wisconsin has a Google Voice telephone number maintained by Spanish-speaking Amigos officers that serves as a direct line of information and communication with the community.

It's use has grown over the last two years:

Given the current national climate, we do not find that surprising and anticipate that we will continue to have this trend as both our work continues and the national climate trend continues," wrote Sergeant Mike Alvarez of the Madison Police Department (MPD) in a recent query about the program's status.

The program started in 2004 with then Neighborhood Police Officer Gloria Reyes working in the South District to develop relationships with the Latino population. By 2016, it grew into an organized group of about 30 volunteers, putting on events in line with community policing efforts and is considered a special unit of MPD.

The group is dedicated to dissolving cultural barriers, building partnerships and opening lines of communication between the Latino Community and MPD and Dane County.

Dedicated Spanish Public Safety Call Line Reveals Victims

In 2009, Amigos began using a work phone and were only logging calls for general information. In 2015, only 14 calls were listed in this log, but in 2016, there were 45 calls. This year, there were 65 calls by the beginning of December.

The very fact that the calls are being made, we feel, reflect a certain measure of trust in our group’s ability and willingness to provide information and support," Alvarez explained when Efficientgov first contacted him in 2016.

The dedicated call line is for referrals, information and occasionally facilitates reporting crimes to dispatch. Overall, the line serves as a way for the Spanish-speaking community to have confidence in overcoming language and access barriers and sharing information with law enforcement.

For example, it's provided an avenue to address domestic violence and sexual assault and other issues. Victimization is happening, Alvarez said in 2016.

"They are afraid to report it, due to these barriers."

Alvarez said that anecdotally -- but also judging by the increased volume of work -- more victims have come forward, more suspects are questioned and there have been more prosecutions, as a result of the channel.

Also, Amigos met with the Rape Crisis Center in 2016 and created informational Spanish posters for potential victims, placed in police districts, and a Spanish form available for MPD to use if and when Spanish-speaking assault victims come forward.

How Google Voice Works

Google Voice is a tool that provides anyone or organization with power over multiple phone numbers.

A department can reference certain calls to ring certain phones, and the digital tool provides call answering, forwarding and other capabilities, according to PC World.

According to Forbes, Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently told the House Judiciary Committee that Google Voice users have the choice to store call data.

The Amigos generate data on how many calls and voicemails, and calls from repeat numbers, the line receives.

Youth Outreach Improves Perception of Police Officers

In 2016, a “South Side Soccer Series” tournament emerged from an Amigos partnership with Dane County Centro Hispano to connect to area youth on Madison’s south side, according to the Amigos' 2016 annual report provided to Efficientgov.

Organized by Alvarez, the soccer program incorporates many volunteers who are not regular Amigos members. He said it makes the kids in the Latino community feel more comfortable and develop a more positive perception of police officers -- which improves how they respond to officers in the future.

The group also supports Latino and Black Youth Academies, organized by a grant-funded MPD work group.

These youth programs also promote minority police officer recruitment. MPD has Latino officers, including one who emigrated from Columbia who is an active Amigos member, Alvarez noted.

How Amigos en Azul is Funded

MPD has provided funding for the Amigos special unit, according to Alvarez, but additional funds for community events are sought from grant programs and donations.

Police officers and sergeants involved with the group do not receive comp time, and work by leaders are an additional duty to their public safety work, he added.

Group members have also included officers and staff from:

  • Dane County Sheriff’s Department
  • Sun Prairie Police Department
  • Fitchburg Police Department
  • Capital Police Department
  • University of Wisconsin Police Department

Officers that lead the Amigos meet once or twice a month for program evaluation and planning. They also provide weekly safety education outreach through a variety of Spanish media components:

  • Televised Crime Stoppers segment
  • Radio shows
  • Newspaper articles published in Spanish newspapers
  • Flyers and other marketing collateral

Also critical -- MPD Chief Mike Koval is very supportive, according to Alvarez.

Visit the Amigos En Azul Madison Facebook page.

Amigos En Azul is also a program of the Austin, Texas Police Department and the name of the Hispanic Police Officer Association of Arlington, Texas.

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