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Police Field Criticism, Kudos on Spanish-Language Show

September 15, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A Spanish-language call-in program about crime prevention last week included plenty of criticism of the Oxnard police.

One viewer of the cable TV show's debut complained that police officers do nothing about prostitutes and drug dealers on Oxnard Boulevard.

Another, whose house on D Street was burglarized twice over a short period, said an officer suggested that the viewer prevent more burglaries by moving.

And several criticized the department for what they said was inadequate patrolling of the Colonia, Oxnard's barrio.

Yet, near the end of the 30-minute program, which Oxnard police officials believe is the first Spanish-language, police-produced show in the nation, a congratulatory message flashed on the television monitor for host Ray Centeno, an Oxnard police detective.

"Ray, this show is a big hit," said the message from Jennifer Quinlan, the city's crime prevention coordinator, who produced the program for commercial cable station KTV-6.

Callers jammed telephone lines with questions that invariably led Centeno to stress the need for public participation in law enforcement. Organizers said later that the response outweighed any embarrassment from the criticism.

"Other police forces wouldn't lay themselves open like this," said David Keith, a Police Department management analyst. "But we needed to get a message out, and we figure it is worth the risk of humiliation."

Three years ago, Keith developed a show to promote Neighborhood Watch groups, which bring neighbors together to protect each other's properties. Now, the program airs twice a month on Jones Intercable and serves as the model for its new Spanish counterpart, "Vecindario Vigilado."

The Spanish show, whose name means "the watched neighborhood," will air on Channel 6 in Oxnard from 8 to 9:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of each month. It will cover many of the same topics discussed on the English program--home security tips, local crime patterns and how to set up Neighborhood Watch groups--as well as problems unique to the Latino community, organizers said.

They plan to discuss scams that have victimized Oxnard's Latino community and to stress the importance of cooperating with police.

Recent Latin-American immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are reluctant to report crimes because they fear that doing so may lead to deportation, said Mario Bermudez, a guest on Tuesday's show last week. Some fear that they will have to bribe authorities, a practice common in Mexico.

"I've had several victims come in and say, 'How much is it going to cost me to make a report of a burglary or to file a restraining order?' " said Bermudez, who works in the department's Victim Assistance Services unit. "They think it's going to cost a little under the table."

A fear of retaliation, especially from young vandals, also makes residents of Latino neighborhoods reluctant to report crimes. Even when they do, many seek anonymity, which can make prosecutions difficult, police said.

Language barriers between Oxnard's police officers, many of whom do not speak Spanish, and the city's large Latino population further aggravate the situation. "If the officer says it's OK to report a crime, the message sometimes doesn't get across," Quinlan said.

Meanwhile, Oxnard police suspect that many more crimes occur than are reported in the Colonia, which has the second-highest crime rate of the city's seven police districts.

"I'll get calls from someone in the Colonia saying, 'We've had a lot of burglaries on this street,' and I'll look up the reports and find no burglaries reported in the area or not nearly as many as they say occurred," Quinlan said.

Public's Help Sought

When callers requested beefed-up patrols in the Colonia, Centeno emphasized the importance of residents reporting crimes in their neighborhood, which has the fewest Neighborhood Watch groups in the city, Keith said.

If crimes aren't reported, it's difficult for the Police Department to justify sending more patrol cars to the Colonia, Centeno said.

He told the caller who complained about illegal activity along Oxnard Boulevard that detectives are working on the problem and would appreciate any information he could give them.

The burglary victim who had been advised to move was told how to set up a Neighborhood Watch group.

"Vecindario Vigilado" does not make for riveting viewing. Although the 32-year-old Centeno, who has been with the department nine years, bears a striking resemblance to Burt Reynolds, he spent most of the show looking at his feet as callers told stories as long and halting as Oxnard Boulevard.

Technical problems plagued the program. It started five minutes late. Many callers were accidentally disconnected--one viewer called the station four times before getting on the air--by a receptionist unfamiliar with the station's switchboard.

Once on the air, callers were allowed to ramble long after they had made their points. One man talked for nearly 10 minutes. Members of the crew taping the live broadcast explained that they were hesitant to interrupt callers because they didn't understand Spanish.

Language Problems

Crew members weren't the only people whose language skills left something to be desired. Viewers noted that Centeno, who is not a native Spanish speaker, was tough to follow and often mispronounced common words.

"He's massacring the Spanish language," one woman said.

Quinlan defended Centeno, saying he speaks what she called "Oxnard Spanish." But she conceded that he might have been rusty.

"He doesn't speak Spanish every day," she said.

Centeno attributed any gaffes to "a little bit of nervousness that will wear off. It's like with a new car. You have to drive it a while to get the bugs out."

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