Two years ago, Loudoun County Sheriff's Office investigator Scott Mastandrea struggled to communicate with non-English speaking residents on the road and over the telephone.
"I spoke very little Spanish," Mastandrea said. "I would try and act out what I was trying to say, but it wasn't very effective."
Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson is aware of the language barrier between some county deputies and non-English speaking residents. The county’s population is becoming increasingly more diverse and so, there is a need for bilingual deputies.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Kraig Troxell said 7.5 percent of Loudoun’s population is Hispanic. That number has doubled since 1999. An estimated 3 percent of the county’s population speaks English poorly or not at all.
"The county is changing and it is challenging," Simpson said.
The Sheriff’s Office tries to recruit deputies that speak more than one language by offering them incentives, but Simpson said it is hard to compete with other jurisdictions that can offer them more money for their language skills.
"They are not always affordable," Simpson said. "We don’t have the option to offer them as much money as other jurisdictions."
In the past, when officers encountered a language problem, Troxell said, they dialed a language hotline. The hotline supplies officers with translators that act as a middle man between the officer and non-English speaker.
"This is used quite often during investigations," Troxell said, "but it doesn’t work well in the heat of the moment. There is a disconnect."
IN AN EFFORT to overcome the language obstacle, the Sheriff’s Office offers deputies Spanish-language classes.
Troxell referred to the language program as a 64-hour survival Spanish course.
The Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with an Alexandria-based teaching organization, offers deputies a 12-week beginner’s Spanish class and a 12-week advanced Spanish class, spread out over two years.
"Not all the officers are going to be fluent, but they can carry on a basic conversation, back and forth," Troxell said. "The population is changing. The need for Spanish-speaking deputies is increasing."
Two years ago, Mastandrea enrolled in the Spanish program.
"I spoke very little Spanish. I took a few courses in college, that's it," he said.
Mastandrea said he found the classes to be very helpful because it provided him with conversational skills and vocabulary pertinent to his career. The class focused on vocabulary words deputies might use in "real world" scenarios, he said.
"I use it all of the time," he said. "If I'm not speaking Spanish, I'm helping other deputies who don't speak Spanish over the phone."
After the courses, Mastandrea said he feels much more comfortable taking calls from non-English speakers.
"Now I understand exactly what the problem is instead of getting bits and pieces of information," he said. "I'm getting a better picture of the community."
MASTANDREA hopes the county's Hispanic population sees this program as a way to bridge the gap between the Sheriff's Office and the immigrant community.
"We hope the Hispanic community spreads the word that we are making an effort to speak Spanish and that they shouldn't be afraid to call us," he said. "We're here to help."
In addition to the language classes, the Sheriff’s Office hired a full-time Spanish translator this year.
This person works nights and weekends and is on call to respond to scenes that need his assistance.
In addition, the Sheriff’s Office has a limited number of bi- and multilingual deputies, there are a handful of men and women who are fluent in Chinese, Filipino, French, Laotian, Polish, Thai, Ukrainian, Italian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, German, Russian and Spanish.
"We hope this helps bridge the gap between different cultures," Mastandrea said.