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Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office holds first Spanish town hall

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The realization came quickly to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in the months after he became the county’s top lawman.

Looking out upon the crowds during various speaking engagements, Essick noticed Sonoma County Latinos were not proportionally represented compared to other groups in attendance.

“We don’t always reach all the people in our community,” Essick said.

Essick aimed to reverse that trend with his office’s first Spanish-language town hall this week, an event he said represented the agency’s continued effort to engage the Latino community in Sonoma County.

Coffee and pan dulce, a sweet Mexican pastry, greeted attendees Wednesday evening as they arrived at Amarosa Academy, an alternative education campus south of Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood.

While the Sheriff’s Office hosted town halls to connect with residents in Geyserville and Petaluma last year, Sgt. Juan Valencia told attendees that Wednesday’s meeting was the first of its kind in the agency’s 170-year history. None other was tailored specifically for Spanish speakers, said Valencia, who serves as the agency’s spokesman.

“The Latino people have a voice in the community and we always want to work with them,” Valencia said, addressing the crowd at the start of the event in Spanish. “When I was made a sergeant, I wanted to act like a bridge to the community. Get information from (them) and give it to the sheriff so we can work together.”

Essick and Assistant Sheriffs Jim Naugle and Al Vernon, who each oversee the department’s patrol and detention facilities, respectively, were among the 20 Sheriff’s Office employees present at the event. They outnumbered the handful of people who attended the gathering throughout the evening, which was designed to accommodate attendees’ schedules. Instead of a set agenda, people were able to drop in at their leisure and visit tables staffed with in-house experts about topics including use of force, recruitment and detention.

Essick said he hoped the event would provide community members with a better understanding of what he and his employees do on a daily basis and dispel any myths about his office. At the start of the event, Valencia assured attendees that deputies do not enforce federal immigration laws, a message Essick shared with thousands of Latino concertgoers in July.

Essick offered another example: he’s heard of Sonoma County Latinos who think the Sheriff’s Office sends them a bill when they call police for help.

“I really feel a huge responsibility as sheriff to reach out to everybody in our community,” Essick said. “I think the biggest hope is that people felt welcome.”

Among the attendees was Analy Onofre, a youth development specialist at the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, a nonprofit that helps low-income families. She attended Wednesday’s event to learn firsthand about the agency and speak with local deputies, something she’s not used to doing.

“Sometimes you go to high-powered people, like a deputy, and think ‘How can I talk to them’ or ‘Is it safe to talk to someone like that?’ ” she said. “Especially coming from a Latino background. We grow up with ‘Don’t talk to the police.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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