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The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cops Take Spanish Lessons
Helps officers stay safe, promotes understanding
By Earnest Winston
August 20, 2001
HAMILTON Police call it "survival Spanish," the basic words and phrases they increasingly need to do their jobs in a region with a booming Hispanic population.
Across the Tristate, officers are learning to speak Spanish. They're doing it through intense immersion courses, night classes, or thumbing through pocket phrase books so they can mingle in Hispanic neighborhoods and avoid potentially deadly miscommunications.
"When people don't understand basic commands that you or I take for granted such as "Keep your hands up!'" tensions rise for both officer and suspect, said Neil Ferdelman, Hamilton's police chief.
He recounts responding to a domestic violence call on a late-night shift in March and feeling forced to stand back until a bilingual officer could be summoned to talk through the volatile situation with the Hispanic couple.
"When we're summoned to a disturbance and we don't know who's been the aggressor or who potentially has weapons on them, that can be a problem," Chief Ferdelman said. "And if the person goes to reach for something, I think the apprehension is certainly heightened by the officer. And if the officer draws a gun then that heightens the apprehension of the Hispanic.
"The overwhelming feeling that I had and other officers have in similar situations is the frustration of not being able to communicate effectively."
Police officers' ability to speak Spanish also helps community relations with the new immigrants and reassures them that they aren't being singled out, Hispanics say.
The Tristate's Hispanic population more than doubled over the last decade, with the number in the eight counties now at 22,000, according to recently released Census figures.
That's a rate even faster than the nationwide trend that showed a 60 percent increase, now totaling 35.3 million Hispanics. Many Hispanics moving here are younger families. They are coming from countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru.
Newcomers are concentrated in areas including Hamilton, Fairfield, Lower Price Hill, Springdale, Covington, Florence and Newport.
In Butler County, the Hispanic population rose 225 percent - from 1,467 to 4,771 - over the last decade. Officials here say they are having more and more contact with people who speak Spanish, but little or no English.
Lt. Manson Laney of the Butler County Sheriff's Office ran into a problem last summer at the minimum security jail. While working an overtime shift, the 17-year veteran was approached by two Hispanic men who asked if they could visit a friend.
Problem was, Lt. Laney did not understand a word they were saying. So he summoned help.
"It took quite some time and a lot of hand gestures to explain to them what we were talking about," said Lt. Laney. "It was the longest game of charades I ever played."
That encounter prompted him to suggest a Spanish-language class for 15 sheriff's deputies, dispatchers and detectives. The idea was approved, and in January the four-month basic conversational class debuted.
Two times a week for a total of four hours, students gathered on their own time in the squad room in the basement of the sheriff's office, immersing themselves in their bilingual textbooks.
The class, which cost the department $2,740, has been such a success that an advanced Spanish class will soon follow.
Back to school
Butler County peace officers are not the only ones in the area feeling the effects of the Hispanic growth explosion. In Cincinnati, police have been trying to bridge the language barrier for several years.
The division is running a 30-week Spanish and culture class for 20 officers and other city employees. The pilot class cost the city just under $15,000.
Since 1998, more than 450 Cincinnati officers have taken Spanish classes at the police academy. And two years ago, the division made it mandatory for each recruit class to take eight hours of Spanish and culture classes, said Cathy Boone, a training coordinator at the Cincinnati Police Academy.
Sgt. Sylvia Ranaghan of the Cincinnati Police Division knows first-hand the challenge of communicating in Spanish. As one of only five Hispanic officers on the 1,020-member force, she often has to put aside her supervisory duties so she can translate for other officers.
"Just a couple days ago, there were three domestic violence cases involving female Hispanics," the 21-year veteran and native of Puerto Rico said earlier this year. "Guess who investigates them? Me. How can the officers investigate them if they can't speak the language?"
Last year, she was asked by a friend at the Tristate Regional Community Policing Institute in Sharonville to help organize a free Spanish-language class. She did. In her spare time, she also helps teach the 40-hour class, which is geared toward law enforcers but is open to citizens.
Training focuses on communicating during traffic stops, obtaining basic information name, age, address, type of crime and helping summon ambulances. Officers also are taught "red flag" words such as "When he looks away" or "Shoot him" and how to make felony arrests.
Other Tristate law enforcement agencies are also taking steps to address the language barrier:
The Warren County Sheriff's Department last fall hired an instructor to teach deputies Spanish for three days, sent deputies to Spanish classes and began posting bilingual phrases at work sites.
Six Hamilton police officers were among about 20 city employees who attended portions of a recent 24-week Spanish class offered by city officials at Miami University-Hamilton. Two of eight people who completed the class, which cost $681 per person, were police officers.
In Covington, police may incorporate Spanish classes into their training program for new officers, said Lt. Col. Jim Liles. The department recently used money from traffic fines to buy pocket Spanish guides for 50 patrol officers.
In Florence, police brought in a Northern Kentucky University professor to teach a two-month Spanish class last year for more than a dozen street officers and city employees. The class cost $3,500.
Several officers have also attended a state-funded 16-hour "Spanish for Law Enforcement" class, where they learned how to pronounce words in Spanish, street slang, cultural expressions and traffic stop commands.
This type of training might have preserved the life of an Oregon State Police trooper in 1992.
Trooper Bret Clodfelter had arrested a Hispanic man for drunken driving and placed him and two other Hispanic men in the back seat of his cruiser. The three Hispanic men chatted openly in Spanish. Had Trooper Clodfelter known even basic Spanish, he might have recognized that the men were planning to grab his weapon and shoot him.
The trooper died after being shot four times in the back of the head, said Robert Dent, a retired Oregon State Police senior trooper. In later testimony, one of the two men admitted planning the murder in Spanish.
Mr. Dent since has written two field manuals for public safety officers on key phrases that include "preparese (get ready)" and "el no entiende (he doesn't understand)."
Ten years ago, police say, having a Spanish-speaking officer on the force wasn't much of an issue. That's no longer the case, even though the number of Hispanic police officers in the Tristate can be counted on two hands, police say.
However, a growing number of police agencies are recruiting Hispanic or Spanish-speaking officers.
"We have noticed, particularly in the last several years, a strong trend toward the importance of starting to offer our officers an opportunity to learn Spanish," said Steve Hennessy, a cultural awareness trainer for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.
"I see a trend with departments around the country. Some have been ahead of it, and some are just catching up," Mr. Hennessy said. "I think they are starting to realize that the whole multicultural issue is becoming an interesting challenge, language-wise."
The Rev. William Jansen, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said the Spanish classes are a first step to improving relations between Hispanic immigrants and law enforcement officials.
"In the past, many of them had the opinion that just by the mere fact of who they were they would be continually stopped," Father Jansen said. "However, that's changed. It does happen, but it's gotten a lot better."
Sergio Reyes Jr., a native of Puerto Rico, said police stopped him and three friends earlier this year on Interstate 275 in Northern Kentucky. He was on his way to his house in Wilder. He recalls the terrifying feeling in dealing with an officer who didn't speak Spanish.
Speaking through translator Sister Juana Mendez, who does outreach work with the Hispanic community at the Diocese of Covington, Mr. Reyes said he still doesn't know why he was stopped.
"I felt very fearful and very uncomfortable because I didn't know why I was being pulled over," said the 21-year-old, who was let go without a ticket. "I was driving the speed limit."
Sister Mendez said she welcomes the idea of encouraging police to learn a second language.
"I have had to translate in many, many, many occasions because the person receiving the violation or whatever it may be is not able to communicate with the law officer and vice versa," Sister Mendez said. "That frightens the person."
Veteran officers say learning a new language can be difficult, but the dividends are obvious.
Butler County sheriff's Maj. Anthony Dwyer said he recently attended a 10-day Spanish immersion class. Participants were not allowed to speak English after the second day.
"It was the hardest class I've ever been to in my entire career," Maj. Dwyer said. "I had no Spanish going in. Coming out knowing that I could sit down and take a basic police report was an accomplishment."
TALKING THE TALK
Among phrases Tristate public safety officials are being taught in Spanish classes: