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Back to Archives | Back to March 2011 Contents 

Community Policing in the Delray Beach, Florida, Haitian Community

By Anthony Strianese, Chief of Police, Delray Beach, Florida Police Department

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The city of Delray Beach, Florida, is a two-time All America City (1993 and 2001) of approximately 65,000 residents. This vibrant, diverse community, known as the “Village by the Sea,” is located along the eastern seaboard in Palm Beach County, Florida. Bordered by Fort Lauderdale and Miami to the south and West Palm Beach to the north, the city is rich in history and local talent. The Delray Beach Police Department (DBPD) is a full-service agency comprising 160 sworn officers and 75 civilian support staff, complemented by a cadre of nearly 400 active volunteers. In 2008, the DBPD volunteer program was recognized by the IACP as one of the three best law enforcement volunteer programs in the world.

ske ou pale kreyol? (Do you speak Creole?) In the early 1990s, this question began to be heard around the city of Delray Beach, Florida. Over the next couple of years, the question became more and more frequent. Unknowingly, Delray Beach was in the midst of an immigrant explosion of mostly illegal Haitian immigrants. It seemed like overnight, the demographics changed dramatically. Along with this influx of immigrants, a subculture emerged in the Haitian community.

Dominating this subculture were criminal elements feeding on the fears of the illegal immigrants. Extortion, robbery, and forced prostitution against fellow Haitians were commonplace. And fear of the police, instilled by a ruthless system of policing in their home country, kept the victims from reporting crimes. It was only after a few immigrants who had become legal resident aliens, without fear of being deported, came forward and revealed the subculture and the extent to which it controlled the Haitian community that then–Chief of Police Richard Overman took the unprecedented step of reaching out to the Haitian community in an attempt to take hold of the situation.

Images courtesy of Delray Beach,
Florida, Police Department
In 1996, Chief Overman realized that in order to combat this criminal element, the Delray Beach Police Department (DBPD) would need to enlist the support of the Haitian community. Without the community’s support, the police would not be able to effectively identify and prosecute those responsible. For several years, the DBPD had conducted a successful citizens police academy. Chief Overman believed that by conducting a similar academy in Creole for the Haitian community, members of that community would begin to stand up and help stop the victimization. So in 1996, the DBPD Haitian Citizens Police Academy (CPA) class number one, believed to be the first citizens police academy in the country to be conducted in Creole, was planned. Having developed trust with the Haitian community, the DBPD encouraged the illegal immigrants to come and learn about how the police could help Haitian community members to help themselves.


Bridging the Gap—Haitian American Citizens Police Academy

With the maximum capacity of 40 individuals signed up, and others on a wait list, the first night of the DBPD CPA class number one was an eagerly awaited event. But as the starting time of 6:30 p.m. approached, it was evident that something was wrong—no one had arrived at the police station. By 6:45 p.m., the CPA coordinator, Officer Skip Brown, began calling registrants to see what the problem was. After a few hang-ups, one registrant said that he was told by “them” (the criminal subculture) that the police were tricking registrants, and that U.S. immigration officers would be waiting at the police station. Registrants believed they would be arrested and deported back to Haiti. During the next week, calls were made to assure registrants that there was no risk. The following week, four people showed up for the second night of the academy. These four individuals were so impressed with the presentations that they helped to spread the word that the academy was not a trick, but rather an educational opportunity not usually afforded to illegal immigrants in a new country. Slowly, over the next eight weeks, the number of participants increased, and by graduation night there was a full class of graduates. The next challenge was to mobilize these graduates to help bridge the gap between the DBPD and the Haitian community.


Enlisting Volunteers—The Haitian American Roving Patrol

In 1981, the DBPD began to use volunteers in an effort to increase the police presence in the community without increasing costs. Citizen Observer Patrols (COPs) were developed, and from 1990 to 1995, the DBPD realized a steady decrease in the crime rate in the areas patrolled by volunteer COP members. In the Haitian community, in an effort to mirror the success of the COP program, graduates of the Haitian American CPA class number one were asked to help establish a Haitian volunteer patrol. Five members stood up and in 1996 helped establish the DBPD Haitian American Roving Patrol (HARP). Charged with patrolling the Haitian community in specially marked volunteer vehicles and dressed in volunteer uniforms, volunteer Captain Wilner Athouriste and his four patrol members began to bridge the gap.

On his first day of volunteer patrol, volunteer Captain Athouriste said, “Seven years ago you couldn’t pay me to walk into the [police] station.” This statement was proof that Chief Overman’s vision of embracing the Haitian community and inviting them to be a part of the police department, instead of creating an adversarial relationship, would be the key to successful policing in the mostly illegal immigrant Haitian community. During the next 14 years, the DBPD graduated 14 classes of the Haitian CPA, and the HARP grew to more than 30 members. In 2009, the HARP patrolled more than 1,800 hours in support of the DBPD and the Haitian community. In addition to patrolling, HARP volunteers also assist the DBPD and surrounding agencies with translation. Requests for assistance in interviewing suspects and victims are received from all over Palm Beach County.


During times of crisis, such as the recent earthquake and hurricane in Haiti, HARP volunteers also assist the city with the collection of goods to be shipped to Haiti. Volunteers act as liaisons, encouraging the Haitian community to donate to the DBPD. Historically, the Haitian community has been reluctant to donate even for its own country because of prior incidents in which donations, especially monetary, never reached the intended recipients. Through the DBPD partnership with a local shipping company and a relief agency in Haiti, the DBPD was able to guarantee that donations received would truly benefit those intended to receive them. As a result of this combined effort, five tractor trailer loads of donated goods were shipped to Haiti from the city of Delray Beach following these natural disasters in 2010.

Since implementing the Haitian CPA and the HARP, the DBPD has been called upon to help other agencies in Florida with growing Haitian communities. In 2004, members of the DBPD HARP travelled to Broward County each week for eight weeks to assist the Broward County Sheriff’s Office with its first Haitian CPA. In 2007, the DBPD hosted a statewide conference on how to start a successful CPA. In 2008, the DBPD CPA coordinator was invited to become a board member of the Florida Citizens Police Academy Association (FCPAA), and in 2009, DBPD was a featured agency at the FCPAA annual conference.


Measuring Success—Examples of Haitian Outreach

The success of the DBPD Haitian CPA and subsequently its volunteer HARP can be measured in the fact that Haitians—both legal and illegal—no longer fear the police in Delray Beach. Haitians proactively approach the police with information, as well as with issues concerning the Haitian community. For example, the DBPD began to see an increase in hit-andrun motor vehicle crashes. There was no obvious reason for the increase until a HARP volunteer pointed out to the volunteer coordinator that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had changed its procedures for renewing a driver’s license: proof of legal residency was now required. This meant that illegal aliens, who previously could renew their driver’s licenses online, could no longer renew their licenses.
Needing transportation to work, they would be forced to drive without a license and risk getting arrested. Unfortunately, when involved in a motor vehicle crash, their only option to avoid arrest was to flee the scene. Confronted with this dilemma, the DBPD began to seek alternatives to allow these unlicensed drivers to continue to work without driving illegally. Local churches were contacted to see if church buses, used mostly on weekends and at night, would be available to assist with transporting people to and from work. Church leaders were receptive to the idea, and the use of the city of Delray Beach’s free city bus service was offered as an alternative to those who were no longer licensed to drive. By providing alternate transportation and by keeping unlicensed drivers off the road, the result was a dramatic decrease in hit-and-run crashes.

Mackenson “Mack” Bernard
Another successful example can be seen in the local high school. The DBPD teamed up with the Palm Beach County School District to create a law enforcement academy in Atlantic High School. The academy gives students—“cadets”—the opportunity to learn about law enforcement firsthand from police officer instructors. This award-winning program has been instrumental in bridging the gap between the Haitian American youth of the community and the police. This year, of the estimated 180 cadets in the academy, approximately 70 percent are of Haitian decent.

But the most significant example of the success of Delray Beach’s and the DBPD’s work with the Haitian community came in 2008 when Mackenson “Mack” Bernard, a Haitian immigrant, was appointed to the city commission, becoming the first Haitian American to hold a commission seat. The Haitian community then felt that it had finally become a part of Delray Beach. Through community policing efforts and creative community partnerships, the DBPD continues to foster trust with the Haitian community, overcome the criminal subculture that took advantage of immigrants, and help Haitian residents take an active role in their community. ■

Please cite as:

Anthony Strianese, "Community Policing in the Delray Beach, Florida, Haitian Community," The Police Chief 78 (March 2011): 32–33.


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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