In 2005, Capt. Carlos Lara arrived in Nashville just in time to witness how the city coped with a new wave of immigrants, and although he didn’t know it at the time, Lara would use his early experiences to become Metro Nashville Police Department’s first Latino Captain and chief diversity officer.
Born and raised in Boston, Lara moved away from a city where he was surrounded by an established Honduran community to Nashville, where thousands of newly arrived Mexican people made their homes.
He first started interacting with immigrant communities as a medical assistant at Centennial Pediatrics, whose clients were mostly Kurdish and Mexican children. As a Spanish speaker, he was often tasked with questioning the families and found that he enjoyed the investigative process of finding the root cause of an issue.
Lara left the medical field altogether in 2008, when he decided to become a police officer with the MNPD. He quickly rose through the ranks to become MNPD’s first Latino captain. As a result of rising concerns about police brutality, Nashville’s recently-appointed Chief John Drake chose Lara to head a new department dedicated to improving police relationships with Nashville’s immigrant communities.
Lara spoke with the Tennessee Lookout about his passions and how he plans to improve MNPD’s relationship with immigrants and New Americans.
How do you like Nashville?
Lara: Everything is much faster paced in Boston. The city is a lot more congested, and for me, after coming down here, it’s just a lot nicer here. If I ever drove by somebody and I waved and smiled at them, they’d go “what the heck are you doing waving at me for. You don’t know me.”
Here in Nashville, they’re much friendlier and inviting. I love it here now, I’ve learned a lot. The city has offered me and my family so much. My sons were born here, so I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
What made you decide to be a police officer?
I’ll be honest with you, I really wanted to help in a different way. In the medical system, I would do a lot of asking kids questions about their parents, investigating and digging into people’s information. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, and then I was like, I’d also love to be a police officer because they get to go out and do a lot of cool things, like going undercover. I just wanted to try something new.
Were there many Latino police officers when you started?
When I started, I think I was one of 10 to 12 Latinos in the police department, and out of those numbers, only six actually spoke Spanish. There were a lot of second and third generation Latinos who maybe only spoke Spanish at home, didn’t want to learn or didn’t want to deal with talking in both languages.
A lot of people here don’t speak much Spanish. I think a lot of parents were like, “learn English, I want you to learn English so you can fit in better with this country.”
I have two sons, and we definitely try to keep them learning Spanish because we didn’t want them to lose that. My mother-in-law only speaks Spanish and I have cousins, aunts and uncles that only speak Spanish. You don’t want to lose connection with that [heritage]. It’s such a benefit and it’s a part of your culture.
What were your struggles as one of the only Spanish-speaking police officers?
I was utilized a lot because there weren’t many Spanish-speaking officers and there were a lot of Spanish-speaking victims. I was contacted constantly to translate in different cases, and that was something that was very time consuming at the time because depending on the shift, there were only one or two Spanish speakers. It worked out in my favor because I was able to be a part of a lot of investigations despite being very time consuming.
Because there weren’t a lot of Latinos, especially officers, I didn’t know how people perceived me. There was a need for Latino officers, so I was able to get moved to different units. I always wondered if people thought I was getting special treatment for being Latino. It kinda bothered me because I worked hard to get to where I was. These may have been the thoughts of a lot of seasoned officers who wanted to go to the places I was going to.
- Lara began his career as a pediatric medical assistant at Tristar Centennial Medical Center and enjoyed being able to help people translate languages.
- His most enjoyable time on the force has included giving presentations on Spanish speaking radio stations.
- The MNPD diversity program is working on building strong relationships with Nashville’s large Kurdish community.
I have the ability to translate for somebody who needs help, so why not do it? This was the way that a lot of doors opened for me, because a lot of different units were calling and saying “hey, we need help with this case. We don’t have anybody that speaks Spanish and we have a Spanish-speaking victim.”
I learned a lot about how to investigate just through assisting these units and great detectives who taught me how to ask the right questions.
What are your most memorable cases?
I did a lot of narcotics work. There’s a lot of cases I was involved in that had to do with drug trafficking. There were a lot of street-level narcotics as well.
Gosh, when you talk about 13 years on the force, there’s a lot of cases in those years. I think a lot of the cool stuff I was a part of had to do with street-level narcotics. In South Nashville, there were a lot of drugs coming in, a lot of prostitution. Being able to investigate drug dealers instead of drug users to get them off the street was a really fun job. It took a lot of digging and trying to put pieces together. It was like a puzzle, like who’s selling where and how do you get a good case against them so they not only get arrested but they stay off the streets. We had a lot of child abuse cases that were memorable, although they were really sad cases where you found out a child was being abused by a parent. Those are the ones that stick with you because they’re kids.
I will say one of the funnest times I had was when I was in the El Protector program. I worked very closely with [the Hermitage precinct] and we went to several of these Spanish media outlets every week to do Q&A.
We did the El Protector Hispanic Community Festival for four or five years, and we did a lot of outreach with the Latino community. It’s just a lot of fun meeting people and talking to people. El Protector hasn’t done a festival in a while because of COVID, and we are looking into doing more of those bigger events once everything opens up again, but it depends on health restrictions to see how big we can make it.
If I go to the Latino community, they want to see someone who speaks the language, someone who understands the culture. It helps them related to us better and us relate to them. – Capt. Carlos Lara, on the importance of having police officers of color
How are you making sure that you’re interacting with Nashville’s different communities?
Right now, we do a lot with Spanish speakers and Kurdish people, which is another big community that we’re really trying to focus on building a relationship with. We’ve got liasons in LGBTQ, Asian, Latino and Kurdish communities; and we starting to work a lot with the Muslim community and the Somali community. There’s so many [immigrants] here, so we’re trying to reach out to as many as we can and start making connections with them.
What are some of your thoughts about the protests that were held last year?
It was a time where a lot of people were venting the frustrations that they had of how things were going and how police were interacting with people. They were frustrated, and they wanted to let people know how they felt. I think that a lot of people feel that the only way they can feel better is to be heard, and that was the way they expressed themselves through these protests.
The police department just wanted to make sure people had the ability and the right to be able to do it. We want you to be able to protest, just do it safely. I think those protests have brought a lot of change in the way police do their job now, and I think the changes are still coming.
For us, Chief Drake really changed the way we police in Nashville, and a lot of that was due to the voice of the people. We want things to change. A lot of things we were doing weren’t working, and so part of those protests was voicing some of those concerns. We listened, and we want to serve people the way they want to be served.
Would you say the Metro Community Outreach Program was a result of those protests?
The first thing Drake did was appointed me to be the liaison for the Metro Community Oversight Board. Second thing he did was tell me to create an office that could reach out to communities that, historically, we have not had a good relationship with.
Back in the day, we used to tell communities “this is your problem and this is how I’m going to fix it.” It didn’t fix the problem, so now we ask them instead, saying “give me some ideas of how we can help.”
One of the big things we’re working on now is that a lot of cultures won’t call the police. In some communities, they say “we’ve got a lot of domestic violence in our culture, but in our culture we handle it in house. We don’t talk to the police.”
Because we know there’s a lot of domestic violence happening and no one is saying anything about it, we now understand why they’re not calling. We can start working with them to let them know it’s okay and we can help them.
The thing is, people get scared. They say they don’t want to get police involved –let’s just deal with it ourselves– but things like domestic violence escalate. Hate crimes escalate. If they don’t say anything, it’s only going to get worse.
Is this why it’s important to have police officers of color?
We want to make sure we have people that look like the community they’re trying to reach. If I go to the Latino community, they want to see someone who speaks the language, someone who understands the culture. It helps them relate to us better and us relate to them.
It’s important that with so many cultures, we try to diversify and make sure that our department reflects who we’re serving. We’re pushing to recruit more minorities and more people that reflect our city. We want to get as many people as we can, qualified, good people that want to serve that are coming from different backgrounds and cultures so we can really serve the city.