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Police Reach Out to Hispanic Residents

10 officers graduate pilot, Spanish-immersion class

To create a broader stream of communication with Hispanic residents of Fairfax County, 10 county police officers were immersed in a six-month Spanish class. "We have given you a gift, we have given you the opportunity to communicate with thousands of people that six months ago you could not communicate with," said Maj. Tom Ryan of the Fairfax County Police Department at the graduation July 15.

Since 1990, the Hispanic population in Fairfax County has doubled from 6.3 percent to 12.3 percent in 2003, according to county statistics. To better communicate with the non-English-speaking residents they serve, the police department, spear-headed by Ryan, created the class to teach officers a limited proficiency of the language.

"It was not about just teaching survival Spanish, it was about having a conversation ... to help facilitate an understanding between the officers and the Hispanic communities they serve ... [because] communication and understanding are the cornerstones of trust," said Col. David Rohrer, Chief of Police.

Beginning in January, the course immersed 10 officers from Mount Vernon, West Springfield, Sully, Fair Oaks, Reston, McLean, Franconia and Mason District Stations.

Frustrated with the language barrier that was alienating him from the community he served, Officer Eric Harte of the Mason District, said, "I had wanted to learn Spanish for a long time and [during] the seven years I worked for the department, it became harder and harder to communicate with ... Spanish-speakers."

With no Spanish training prior to taking the course, Harte required daily assistance from the language line when serving his community. The line enables officers, who encounter language barriers, to receive assistance from a translator. By passing a phone back and forth with the citizen, receiving translation from the language line, the officer can communicate with a resident in their language.

"This is an excellent opportunity to tie the Latin community with the police department and show [residents] that officers in their area are making the attempt to open up doors to communicate with them," said Harte, who was one of the officers chosen from 90 applicants.

In 2004, Fairfax County Police Officers solicited the assistance of the language line an average of 38 time a day and requested the translation of 44 languages according to Sgt. Richard Perez, police spokesman.

THE CLASS, taught by Edwin Vizcardo, an employee of Diplomatic Language Services, aimed to provide the students with a "limited working proficiency" of the language; level two on the five level scale used by the U.S. State Department, according to Vizcardo.

Conducted over a 22-week period, the 8-hour, 5-days a week classes were comprised of six hours of instruction, two hours of in-school homework; oral exams, routine quizzes and lessons in culture. Officers also practiced their skills by helping out at community centers with large Hispanic populations, such as the Culmore Resource Center in the Bailey's Crossroads area.

Officer Josh Laitinen of the Mount Vernon Station and an officer for seven years, said, "I saw it as a great opportunity to do my job better and help people. The Hispanic community needs just as much attention and help as the rest of the community. It makes it much easier to do that when there is no language barrier."

Much of the class concentrated on casual conversation and developed officers' language skills in order to build rapport with the communities. "You can always meet people half-way, you might have a little English, you might have a little Spanish, but you effectively communicate what's going on," said Officer John Keating of the McLean District. An officer for five and a half years, Keating had no prior Spanish training. Before the class, high school French classes were the extent of Keating's foreign language education.

Looking ahead, Col. Rohrer said that some officers who took the class could be assigned to neighborhoods that have predominantly Spanish-speaking residents and others could be assigned to a neighborhood satellite office where they can apply and build on what they have learned.

"THE BEST OPTION would be to have bi-lingual officers recruited and hired, but we have to find other ways to meet our demand and this [Spanish immersion program] is the second way to achieve that," Rohrer said .

With 30 percent of the Fairfax population foreign-born, and 25 percent of them limited English proficient, the emphasis on recruiting bi-lingual officers is a focus for Fairfax County and other jurisdictions. Arlington County offers up to a $1,000 bonus to bi-lingual applicants.

Breaching the language barrier is also an emphasis in the City of Alexandria, Montgomery County, Md. and Arlington County. Some City of Alexandria officers have received foreign language training through Berlitz, an intensive language program. In Montgomery County, officers can take Spanish classes that focus on receiving information from Hispanic residents for crime victims. Arlington County solicits volunteers from the community to ride along with officers to translate Spanish and other languages.

All Montgomery County, Arlington County, and City of Alexandria police officers have access to a language line.