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Breaking the Language Barrier

The Sheriff’s Office is taking several steps to increase the number of deputies who can speak Spanish.

The scenario: A Loudoun County deputy sheriff has handcuffed a gang member, who is shouting in Spanish that someone better dump the cocaine down the toilet. Evidence is about to be flushed away, and the officer has no clue because he doesn’t know any Spanish.

The Sheriff’s Office is taking several steps to break through the language barrier, such as enrolling deputies in a new in-depth, 16-week Spanish class at the Inlingua School of Language in Rosslyn. They are learning the basics, such as the Spanish words for bathroom and to flush.

Deputies also are learning the language at the police academies, which provide daily Spanish phrases and an optional three-day course after graduation. In addition, deputies can call a language bank to access interpreters of numerous languages.

Sheriff Steve Simpson plans to seek funding for a full-time Spanish interpreter next year and is advertising in Hispanic radio and newspaper classifieds for bilingual officers.

Sara Sharpe, language coordinator of the Inlingua School of Language, said the school offers small classes of 4 to 6 people in 375 languages. The deputy sheriffs’ 16-week “basic survival course” lasted 64 hours. Six deputies met twice a week.

Deputy First Class Kevin Zadula recently took the course. “In addition to the explosive growth of our population, diversification is at a pace that has never been seen in this part of Virginia before,” he said.

KNOWING SPANISH can make a difference in a life and death situation, he said. “If you are dealing with a group and they are working out a plan to disarm or kill you, definitely it’s important.”

The officers who took the course learned street language in several idioms. Hispanic people will use different words with similar meaning, depending on whether they are from Columbia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, or Mexico, he said.

It costs about $765 to send one person to a 16-week course or $4,590 for a group of six, said Judy Rodgers, acting training officer for Loudoun County Human Resources.

Deputies learn to say commands such as “Give me the gun,” common street phrases and curse words, so they can speak and understand what is being said. They study pronunciation so they can read the Miranda rights. The instructor teaches the students the different parts of a house in case there is a chase inside.

“We like very small classes so we can teach one-on-one,” Rodgers said.

Zadula said his class was tailored for law enforcement authorities. He gave high marks to the teacher, Ana Luisa Giraldo-Gonzalez. “The instructor was insightful enough to see our social tendencies … we always talk shop,” he said. “When we were chatter boxes about what happened the night before, what she did was ask us to tell her what happened in Spanish.”

She helped the deputies when they had trouble with the translation. “That was very, very useful,” he said. “She really helped us progress in our skills from how a child would speak to the way an adult would speak.”

Kraig Troxell, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said another 16-week course will be held before the end of the year. “We have deputies fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, German and Russian,” he said.

Deputies have learned phrases at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn, he added. Attending a police academy is a prerequisite to becoming a law enforcement officer

Sgt. Mike Burke and Cpl. Larry Hildner of the Herndon Police Department, have taught the academy’s three-day class in the past. Burke said he taught verbs in the infinitive rather than explaining the different verb tenses. For example, “Usted hablar Ingles?” means “You to speak English?”

“Somebody would understand that sentence. It is no different from me using the improper tense of ‘is’ or ‘are.’ Instead of, ‘I am a policeman,’ I might say ‘I is a policeman.’

“I don’t know if your faith in me as a police officer would be all that great afterward, but,” he added, with a chuckle.

Even if a deputy cannot remember the phrases perfectly, speaking them loud and firm can help quell a difficult situation, he said.

SOME DEPUTIES carry pocket Spanish dictionaries, Troxell said. The language bank also comes in handy when there are no Spanish-speaking deputies available. “You might have a domestic situation. You have an alleged victim and suspect. Neither of them can speak English. You separate them and try to find out what occurred,” he said. “It is a scenario that is on the rise.”

A deputy will call the language bank and have someone speak to the victim and suspect and make the translation.

Troxell said bilingual law enforcement authorities are in high demand in the greater Washington, D.C. area. “We are competing with area jurisdictions,” he said. “We’re trying to become more creative, using different advertising to reach out to the Hispanic community.”

Rodgers said the deputies are the latest in the group of county employees who have used Inlingua School’s services. Human Resources started sending county employees to Spanish classes in January 2001 to learn terminology germane to their work responsibilities. The Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services sent employees to a two-year course to become fluent. The Treasurer’s Office, Fire and Rescue and the public libraries had employees take 16-week courses.

“It’s been very important, because we have been able to provide the kind of services that now are needed for Spanish-speaking citizens,” she said. “Our staff has been able to provide more effective and efficient services by having the language capability.”