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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Wanted: More Spanish-Speaking Officers Language Barrier Keeps Latinos Wary


May 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

The recent spree of violent home invasions by Latino criminals has frustrated Gwinnett police, who aren't getting the level of cooperation they would like from the Hispanic community.

Whether because of language difficulties, cultural differences or just a mistrust of authority, Latinos aren't calling the Police Department with tips about the five- to seven-member crew that has targeted the county. Some in the Hispanic community say they're intimidated because they don't speak English, but the Police Department is trying to hire more Spanish speakers.

The need seems critical. Fourteen years ago, when Gwinnett's Hispanic population was about 9,000, four or five police officers spoke Spanish. Now, with Hispanics numbering close to 90,000, the county has fewer than 30 Spanish-speaking officers out of total force of 600.

"We're trying all the time to hire Hispanic officers," said Sgt. Jay Fetner, a police recruiter who grew up speaking Spanish in Puerto Rico and Central America. "When people find out you speak the language, they really open up."

And when you don't speak the language, people can close up tighter than a clam.

"Our job's going to get done, but it would make things more convenient if we had more people speaking Spanish," said Cpl. Jon Bacchus, who works with Fetner. "I've called departments in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, towns close to the Mexico border, and they didn't have Spanish-speaking officers."

With so many Latino residents in Gwinnett, it seems it would be easy to find acceptable recruits, but Fetner and Bacchus said two requirements complicate their efforts.

To be a sworn peace officer in Georgia, or even a police records clerk, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen. A routine background check of a lifelong Gwinnett resident can take three to six months, the officers said. How would they do a background search on someone from another country? And what would such a lengthy investigation cost?

Gwinnett officials have talked about traveling to Puerto Rico to recruit native Spanish speakers for the Police Department, as did officials from Washington. But so far, they've shelved the idea.

Traveling to Puerto Rico, living there long enough to complete background checks and taking along someone from human resources to administer written tests would be prohibitively expensive, Fetner said.

The two officers recently headed to Fort Stewart in Hinesville to recruit police officers at a job fair --- specifically, Puerto Rican soldiers. They handed out 50 employment applications and handfuls of brochures. Fetner said that when he saw a Hispanic name on a uniform, "I would extend the hand and start talking to him in Spanish."

The two Gwinnett police officers said they like recruiting native Spanish speakers from the military because the process is simpler. Fetner said the Police Department can waive the county's written exam for military personnel.

Salarywise, the Gwinnett Police Department can't compete against other areas with large numbers of Latinos. Miami and Lake Worth, Fla., pay at least $10,000 more than Gwinnett's starting officer's salary of $28,500, the officers said.

The county has taken other steps to reach out to the Hispanic community.

The District Attorney's office sponsors a Volunteer Interpreter Program that pairs speakers of other languages --- primarily Spanish --- with police officers. The volunteers accompany officers on their patrols. Thirty people are involved, and 25 others are waiting to be trained, said victim advocate Crystal Brown, who runs the program.

In addition to volunteers, the county uses an AT&T language line. It links a caller with someone in an answering center who speaks his or her language.

Angie Conley, who directs Gwinnett's 911 center, said her department --- where seven or eight out of 75 people can ask rudimentary questions in Spanish --- uses the service heavily.

Getting rid of the language barrier may make people more comfortable, but it may not prompt Latinos to cooperate with Gwinnett police, many said.

Mexican native Graciela Guerrero says that, in the minds of Latino immigrants, the police symbolize authority, which means immigration authorities. Depending on one's legal status, that means deportation to a life with few opportunities.

"I think fear is keeping some people who may know something about these home invasions from contacting the police," said Guerrero, a U.S. citizen living in Lilburn. "If somebody has a murky past, they may not want to contact the police, either. When they see a uniform, it triggers fear."

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