By Ana Arellano
The attack came out of nowhere. Ecuadorian immigrant Dario Ortíz was in front of his Fair Haven home in New Haven when set upon by an assailant. Ortiz thought he was armed with the perfect crime-fighting tool: his cellphone.
Even though the attacker was hitting him, Ortíz managed to hold on to him and call 911. Knowing very little English – and in the midst of being attacked – he spoke Spanish as he asked the dispatcher to send police.
The dispatcher responded by saying, “Sir, I speak no Spanish” and continued to speak English to him. Once, she did say, “¿Donde Estas?” (Where are you?) although the overwhelmed Ortíz did not respond.
For 12 adrenalin-filled minutes Ortíz, 50, tried to communicate with the dispatcher despite the chaos and the language barrier—and the unavailability of a Spanish-speaking dispatcher. (Listen to the 911 call.)”It seemed like an eternity,” says Ortíz.
Making matters worse, the assailant was joined by friends who had come to his aid in the assault. They also injured three Ortiz family members who had come to help Dario. Finally, Ortíz was able to give his address to the dispatcher. A police officer that spoke no Spanish was sent to the scene of the crime. Fortunately, a neighbor was available to translate and the assailant was arrested.
The heroism of Ortíz was both an inspiration and a painful reminder to the Fair Haven immigrant community. As Angel Fernández, parish council president at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven explains, “Criminals prey on immigrants assuming their victims will be too afraid to speak to the police, or may not know enough English to make themselves understood.” says Fernández.
Many immigrants do not have bank accounts, so they carry their cash with them. Thugs call them “walking ATMs.” Also, immigrants believe if they contact the police and the police suspect they are undocumented, they will be deported.
St. Rose of Lima parish Leaders Cecilio Cuapio and Jeimy Zepeda spoke to the members of the parish to find out the extent of the unreported crime and how members felt about the response of authorities to Ortíz’s request for help. Zepeda discovered that crime against immigrants was common.
“Car windows have been broken. We have had beatings. We have had robberies. Even murders. Yet people are afraid to report crime to the police,” she says. The incident with Ortíz was “the last drop that finally shattered the cup,” says Cuapio —”the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Adds Zepeda, “The story of Ortíz is not only his story – it is also the story of the community.”
In response to the immigrant vulnerability to crime in Fair Haven, Cuapio and Zepeda organized a community meeting at St. Rose of Lima Church on Oct. 21 with New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, and the Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts (who oversees the dispatchers). An agenda was given to Esserman and Smuts beforehand, and they had a chance to discuss community demands with Cuapio and Zepeda before the meeting.
According to a story in the New Haven Independent, more than 250 people attended from the parish, the community, and made demands upon the police department. The article described the five demands as:
- Another walking cop in Fair Haven.
- A promised to give Fair Haven’s top cop extra resources when “crime problems arise.”
- Help from the police chief as the congregation lobbies the state to allow more immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses (so they can feel more comfortable bringing cops crime information even if that means having to show identification).
- Improve the 911 system for Spanish speakers
- An additional patrol car to police Fair Haven.
Chief Esserman said yes to all the demands except the patrol car because he wants to put another beat cop on foot in the area. Smuts promised to work with the community to review the procedures of the dispatchers.
Cuapio observes, “When we speak to those in government, we give a clear message that when we are united as a community we will not solve all the problems, but we will ensure that our dignity is respected.”
Ortíz has paid a price. He has had surgery on his nose, and is still not breathing well. His doctor will see him later in November to determine if he needs another operation. He says he does not care about the injuries to himself; however, he is very distressed over the blows and trauma received by his wife, Mercedes and his eldest children, Mercedes, 21, and Dario Jr., while helping him to hold on to the attacker. The family is concerned that since the alleged assailant is free from custody, he may attack again.
Both the community and the police are well aware of Ortíz’s situation and the dangers posed by the alleged assailant.
As Father James Manship, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, wrote in an email: “I have spoken with Sgt Zona, the district manager, he and his officers in the district are well aware of and are on top of the security issues. In fact, Sgt Zona went and spoke to the prosecutor to stress the assailant’s history of bad behavior. Another parishioner and neighbor of Dario is also keeping an eye on things … Dario and I speak almost daily, and they are doing ok … I would like to emphasize that our leaders and I have a good working relationship with the NHPD.”
Smuts says he is already working with a small committee from the community to address dispatching concerns. “It’s not the first time we’ve looked at this issue. We try to do what we can but we always look for ways to improve our dispatching,” says Smuts. He has also asked the head of the dispatchers to look at how emergency call centers in other cities deal with language and immigrant calls for help.
The cooperation among the police, the community, the dispatchers, and the church exemplifies “corresponsabilidad,” a word used frequently in Spanish for a situation when all parties consider themselves accountable for a common goal. It is sometimes translated as stewardship.