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Cops Need More Spanish

By James Dean

January 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 FLORIDA TODAY. All rights reserved. 

When he joined the Brevard County Sheriff's Office seven years ago, it wasn't uncommon for Agent Carlos Reyes to be awakened at 2 or 3 a.m. to interpret Spanish for a dispatcher or officer responding to an emergency.

"I got kind of burned out for a while," said Reyes, a homicide investigator who knew of only a few other Spanish speakers on patrol at that time.

With the Hispanic population in Brevard County growing, law enforcement and emergency rescue personnel say the need for Spanish speakers in their ranks is also rising.

"I don't see ourselves in a crisis situation," said Orlando Dominguez, spokesman for Brevard County Fire-Rescue, "but as we continue to grow, this is something that needs to be addressed and made a priority."

According to census figures, the number of people in Brevard County who identify themselves as Hispanic increased almost 80 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Although those roughly 22,000 people only make up about 5 percent of the county's population, most county law enforcement agencies haven't kept pace.

At the Sheriff's Office, only 20 of 657 sworn law enforcement and corrections officers identified themselves as Hispanic, said Debbie Moody, a recruiter for the agency.

It was not known if all of them are Spanish speakers. A database the agency is building to identify speakers of all languages currently counts 11 Spanish speakers, though Moody said the data is not complete.

Among city police departments, Palm Bay has a relatively high ratio of Spanish speakers, with seven on the 125-person force, said spokesman Barney Weiss.

Spanish-speaking officers know fluency will always be required to interview victims or help them with legal issues, but they said a knowledge of some basic Spanish phrases would at a minimum be helpful for handling routine procedures such as traffic stops or assisting people who are lost. They also could have more profound consequences.

"You can learn key words that could be critical to what the person is trying to communicate, and maybe even save an officer's life," Reyes said.

Reyes and Agent Alex Hernandez have taught classes to dispatchers, patrol officers and school resource officers. But their busy schedules make it difficult to run the classes regularly.

At a staff meeting last month, Melbourne police officers were given information on an Occupational Spanish program taught at Brevard Community College that specifically targeted law enforcement.

But Elizabeth Rodriguez, program director, said no law enforcement agencies have signed up for the course during the two years she's offered it.

"Unfortunately, there has been a lack of money to budget for this program," said Rodriguez, adding that county Fire-Rescue Chief William Farmer considered budgeting the program for 2004.

However, because off-duty officers called upon to interpret earn overtime pay, lawmen said it's possible an investment in Spanish courses could save departments money in the long term.

Reyes said he's been getting more sleep since the Sheriff's Office hired more Spanish speakers in recent years. "It's been a while since I've been called."

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