Video of arrest in St. Johns County highlights issues between police, Spanish-speaking residents

Body camera video from a St. Johns County arrest in May showed a language barrier between one deputy and a man who the sheriff’s office said was trespassing on a St. Augustine property. The deputy involved later died after confronting the man and arresting him following a scuffle.

RELATED: Body camera video shows language barrier, scuffle between St. Johns County Sgt., man accused in his death

The body camera video of Vergilio Aguilar-Mendez’s arrest showed him in front of a closed business talking on the phone to his mother when he was approached by Sgt. Deputy Michael Kunovich. Kunovich tried to search him — it’s unclear why — and then it got physical. Aguilar-Mendez, who doesn’t speak English, was wrestled to the ground and arrested.

A Spanish-speaking deputy did arrive at the scene with Kunovich in May, but by then the confrontation had already escalated. Aguilar-Mendez is now charged with manslaughter after Kunovich died. He was originally accused of felony murder before his charges were downgraded.

Patricia Buitron, who runs NotiJax, a Jacksonville news website aimed at informing the Hispanic community, said the video was hard to watch and made her emotional.

“He’s totally scared,” Buitron said. “For [the Hispanic community] there is a belief that police are authorized to send them to immigration or something like that. So there’s a predisposition, on them, to be afraid of the police.”

Criminologist Alex del Carmen agreed with Bruton’s opinion of the relationship between Hispanic communities and police.

“We know that certain crimes are underreported by the Hispanic community for the very issue,” he said. “They don’t understand the law. They don’t understand the do’s and don’ts. They don’t understand the benefits afforded by the Constitution. And what they hear are horror stories, particularly in states like Florida, where you know, politically, is not exactly a very friendly state, to individuals that crossed the border illegally.”

St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick said all Aguilar-Mendez had to do was comply with the deputy’s commands, but how do you comply when you don’t understand? And how can we prevent situations like this?

News4JAX del Carmen, who’s trained thousands of police officers, gave his opinion on whether it’s reasonable to use force at this moment when someone doesn’t appear to understand the commands.

“I don’t think that this necessitated for the officer to engage in use of force that would escalate to the level of a taser,” del Carmen said. “Probably that the officer should have been trained, if he was not trained already in basic commands in Spanish.”

News4JAX wanted to see how representative our law enforcement agencies are to the growing Hispanic populations across Northeast Florida. According to data from the FDLE and the Census Bureau, there is a gap.

Numbers from 2022 show that 6.8% of JSO officers are Hispanic while 11.8% of Duval’s population is Hispanic. In Clay County, 3.7% of Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputies are Hispanic and 11.4% of Clay’s population is Hispanic. In St. Johns County, 6.2% of sheriff’s office deputies are Hispanic and 8.7% of the St. Johns population is Hispanic. News4JAX asked all three agencies to confirm the current number of Spanish-speaking officers but the agencies have yet to respond.

Buitron said she’s worked with police in the past to help them translate and she wished it would’ve happened in the situation involving Aguilar-Mendez.

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