When Lt. John Sheridan was called to investigate a domestic assault incident recently, he arrived on the scene to discover the residents only spoke Spanish.
They couldn’t understand Sheridan’s instructions and no bilingual officers were available to come translate.
Sheridan was forced to call a 24-hour interpreter service, and passed the phone back and forth with the residents. Eventually he was able to obtain enough information to make an arrest, but the confusion left all parties exasperated.
“Not being able to speak Spanish made things very difficult,” said Sheridan, a 29-year veteran of the force. “You feel frustrated because you are not able to provide the services people need.”
The dearth of bilingual officers has hampered the force’s effectiveness and made Spanish speakers less likely to go to the police in an emergency situation, Hispanic community leaders said.
Approximately 20 percent of Arlington’s population is Hispanic, while 18 percent of residents age five and older speak Spanish at home, according to county officials.
Yet in a police force of 353 officers, only 24 are certified as fluent Spanish speakers. An additional 20 civilian employees are proficient in the language.
“In order to be effective in securing communities you have to get them engaged,” said Eugenio Arene, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Latino Agencies. “If not enough police speak your language or know your culture, the relationship will be affected. This is a big problem in Arlington.”
Several Hispanic community leaders said that crime is under-reported because many Latinos are reluctant to deal with officers who may not be bilingual. Arlington police need to do a better job of connecting with young Hispanics, who often have a negative view of the police, said Andres Stobar, executive director of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center.
THE ARLINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT has begun offering unofficial lessons in “street” Spanish, to give officers knowledge of basic phrases. Unlike Fairfax, the Arlington force has no formal language training program. Earlier this year 10 Fairfax policemen completed a full-time six-month Spanish immersion class at the Diplomatic Language Services school in Arlington. There are currently no plans to enroll Arlington officers in similar programs, said Detective Rick Rodriguez.
If an officer is flagged down by a Spanish speaker, or apprehends someone with a tenuous grasp of English, they can call a 24-hour interpretation service to facilitate dialogue. Though it is a time consuming option, it has worked well to date, said Deputy Police Chief Jay Farr.
Police are attempting to make inroads with the Hispanic community and therefore are organizing workshops with civic associations to give residents a better understanding of the department’s responsibilities. More than 100 people have graduated from the nine-week long Buckingham Safety Academy, run entirely in Spanish, said Patrick Hope, president of the Buckingham Civic Association.
“The police are bridging the barriers to introduce them to law enforcement and teaching them how to report crime,” said Hope, who said he has never encountered a bilingual officer in his district. “Now they are not as afraid to pick up the phone and call the police.”
The department is encouraging bilingual residents to ride along with officers at night and on weekends and help with translations.
POLICE OFFICIALS SAY they recognize the consequences of the persistent language barrier and are working to recruit more Hispanic and bilingual officers.
“I’m not satisfied,” said Arlington police spokesman Matthew Martin. “I would love to have a stronger bilingual force. We’re looking for new ways to show people law enforcement is an attractive career.”
The department offers Spanish speakers a $1,000 signing bonus as an incentive and awards them a $1,500 annual stipend. Recently the department has commenced a recruitment drive, with advertisements in Spanish language media and Internet job forums. Officers have also been attending Latino job fairs and other community events, in an effort to attract aspiring young Hispanics who previously had not considered joining the police department.
“We are constantly striving to close the gap and always doing outreach to have a higher percentage of Spanish speaking officers,” Farr said.
But the competition is fierce among localities in the metropolitan region. Candidates have an abundance of options in Maryland and Virginia, as well as local and federal positions within the District.
Arlington’s list of stringent requirements is the greatest impediment to recruiting Hispanics, police officials said. The county is one of only three jurisdictions in the region that mandates recruits possess two years of college before they can join the force.
Recently Martin was approached at a local fair by several young bilingual males interested in becoming police officers. When he told them about the college requirements, which do not exist in Fairfax County or Alexandria, they dejectedly walked away.
“This significantly reduces the pool we can recruit from,” Martin said. “It makes it harder to recruit bilingual officers.”
THE COUNTY IS RELUCTANT to change the requirement because Arlington is a highly educated locality and expects its officers to have strong verbal and written skills, Deputy Chief Farr said.
Some members of the Hispanic community are “becoming impatient” with the lack of bilingual officers, said County board member Walter Tejada, who believes individuals who have attended college in another country should be allowed to become officers.
“It’s important to do an all-out recruitment effort,” said Tejada, who was born in El Salvador. “My hope is we would be competitive with other jurisdictions.”
In an attempt to bring more young people onto the force, the Arlington police department has initiated a “Cadet” program for college students under 21, the minimum age for joining. Four students, including one Hispanic female, are enrolled in the program and receive a $1,200 stipend toward tuition.
The police department is also looking to expand its “Explorer” program, in which officers mentor high school students and help steer them toward a career in law enforcement. Currently nine Arlington students are participating, two of whom are Hispanic.
“The answer to this problem is going to schools and talking to young people about a career in the police department,” Stobar said. “That is the way to break down stereotypes young Latinos have about police.”