Can we communicate with cops?
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY ” Father Jude Geilenkirchen gives Eagle County inmates communion, listens to confessions and holds Bible study ” often in Spanish.
Three jail employees speak Spanish, but Geilenkirchen said more should learn Spanish to communicate better with inmates.
But Geilenkirchen also thinks Spanish speakers should learn English, he said.
If “you come to an English speaking country, you should learn English,” said Geilenkirchen, who holds Spanish-language Catholic masses each week in Edwards and Eagle.
With a growing Hispanic population, much of which speaks Spanish, local police are working to hire and train more Spanish-speaking officers, local law enforcement agencies say. Armando Solis said police departments should hire more Hispanic officers to deal with the Hispanic community.
Solis, 25, owns a trucking business that hauls dirt and gravel for construction companies. He grew up in the valley and has lived in Edwards for a year since he moved back from San Diego, where he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“You just want to have a Hispanic dealing with that ” having his race taking care of his own race,” Solis said.
Hispanic officers have a better chance of relieving tension in the Hispanic community, said Fabio Acosta, who works as a driver for the Ritz-Carlton in Bachelor Gulch. Acosta sometimes feels as though white officers are “invading” the Edwards Trailer Park, where Acosta lives, he said.
“In some instances, [Hispanics] feel more comfortable speaking with their own race,” said Fabio Acosta, who has lived in the valley for eight years with his brother, Eleazar Acosta.
As long as plenty of officers speak Spanish, the color of an officer’s skin shouldn’t matter, said Eleazar Acosta, who works as a valet for the Ritz-Carlton. A white officer should be able to patrol, as long as he or she speaks Spanish, he said.
Seven patrol officers and five administrators speak Spanish at the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, said Spokeswoman Kim Andree.
Spanish-speaking employees who pass a test are paid a dollar an hour more than other Sheriff’s Office employees, and 14 other Spanish-speaking employees plan to take the exam, Andree said.
Three jail guards speak fluent Spanish at the Eagle County jail, said Jail Administrator Capt. Bill Kaufman.
“Safety and security are much more of a priority than language,” he said.
Other police departments have fewer Spanish-speaking employees.
Two Vail police officers out of 13 speak and write Spanish fluently and all other officers are trained in a basic Spanish course, said Detective Sgt. Craig Bettis of the Vail Police Department.
The biggest challenge with the language barrier is that it slows down gathering information from witnesses and suspects, Bettis said.
“It just takes more time to get the right information out and also make sure you are getting the right information in,” Bettis said.
Being able to speaking Spanish fluently has been a boon for Vail police Officer Rafael Caballero.
“I think it’s great. I’m blessed to have that skill,” said Caballero, who can understand various slang and accents of Cubans, Mexicans and others from having lived in New York, New Jersey and Miami.
A couple years ago when he was off-duty, Caballero got a call from an officer who was having trouble getting a man’s license during a traffic stop on the North Frontage Road. The officer kept saying, “license,” but the driver, who was Mexican, couldn’t understand his Spanish.
So Caballero talked to the man on the phone.
“He said, ‘Thanks for clarifying that because I didn’t know what was going on. I was afraid to get shot or arrested,'” Caballero said.
“I was like, ‘Man we don’t do that here,'” he said.
Caballero’s skills also have helped in investigations, he said.
Three Spanish-speaking men were caught stealing copper wire from several construction sites last year. The men would not talk to police because they spoke only Spanish, he said.
Caballero talked to them, and he and one of the suspects ended up driving around to various construction sites in the valley, where the suspect showed him every spot the men had hit, Caballero said.
“I think they felt a little more comfortable talking to me than talking to somebody who didn’t understand them,” he said.
Due to the language barrier, Fabio Acosta fears that important information about a Spanish-speaking person’s criminal case could be lost in translation, he said.
“Somebody could go to jail for the right reasons or somebody could go to jail for the wrong reasons,” Fabio Acosta said. “But you wouldn’t know because it wasn’t understood.”
Vail Police often use a language hotline where interpreters provide immediate translation in almost any language, Bettis said. The cost is paid for by the Vail Police Department, he said.
But that means an interview through a third person who’s not an police officer, Caballero said.
“You don’t want to do an interview with language line,” Caballero said.
Police also use a Spanish program that is on all the computers in the patrol cars that lists vocabulary specific to law enforcement, such as basic interview questions and commands, Bettis said.
But the department should hire more Spanish-speaking officers, Caballero said.
“We don’t need to have everybody bilingual, but it would help to have three to five who are fluent and could conduct interviews,” he said.
Out of 17 officers, the Avon Police Department has two officers that speak fluent Spanish and six more are taking Spanish classes, Chief Brian Kozak said. The department recently hired a Spanish-speaking officer and wants to hire another one, he said.
“We definitely have the need to connect with the Spanish-speaking population,” Kozak said.
The language barrier is as much a problem for people who speak only Spanish as it is a problem for police, Geilenkirchen said.
“As far as I know, the police are trying to be as fair as they can,” he said.
Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.