How Are Police Handling Language Barriers?

By: Lindsay Puccio
By: Lindsay Puccio

August 9, 2005

According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics are now the largest ethnic group in the country. Officials said the challenge is the language barrier. Just how well do the local police departments measure up?

The Hispanic population is growing at more than three times the rate of the rest of the country, economists said. This makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to handle the challenge of the language barrier.

"The biggest issue that comes up when I speak with these groups of people is that they have problems with driving, getting drivers licenses, or their interaction with the police officer during a traffic stop, and a lot of that is basically [because of] the language barrier," said Todd Hopwood, of the Albemarle County Police Department.

The Albemarle Police Department started the Cultural Bridges Project and enrolled a quarter of their officers in their 12 week basic Spanish training course. Roughly 10 officers attended the advanced course to continue learning the language.

"It's not just a benefit for the departments and the officers in the department, but it's a benefit to the community as a whole. When we bridge the gap between communities, obviously that's a benefit to everybody involved," said Hopwood.

The Albemarle County Police Department has at least 5 officers that are fluent in Spanish. However, the Charlottesville Police Department has none, so they have to use other methods of communication.

"We go through the E.C.C., the Emergency Communication Center, who contracts a service through AT&T [that] we call the 'language line' and they have interpreters on hand 24/7," said Captain Bryant Bibb, of the Charlottesville Police Department.

Officials said it's hard for police departments to keep the Spanish speaking officers because they're in such high demand. However, Captain Bibb said they'll continue looking.

"We'd love to have more than we do," said Captain Bibb.

Experts say having Spanish-speaking officers not only helps with the language barrier, but it also gives citizens someone to relate to, and build trust with.

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