“Policía! Policía!” Gunshots blast through a west Mesa neighborhood on a Friday night and witnesses yell in Spanish for police help.
There’s just been a shooting and officers flood the busy scene to find a man lying in a driveway pressing a shirt to his left thigh. Blood spills onto the driveway, forming a trail up to the door of a modest home.
Dozens of people mill about the area in the 600 block of South Sycamore which is just behind a trailer park near Broadway and Dobson roads . Women scream and neighbors pour out of their homes to check out the commotion.
But who committed the crime?
No one can say.
The officers can’t speak Spanish, and the victims and witnesses can’t speak English.
Police call for a Spanish translator. He arrives in about 11 minutes , but the gunman is long gone. Meanwhile, a helicopter hovers overhead ready to search, but the pilot doesn’t know who to look for — nor do the officers responding to the scene.
It’s not until later that translators gather descriptions. But it is too late to look for the gunman .
Scenes like this shooting are becoming more frequent in Mesa as the city’s Spanish-speaking population booms and the number of Spanish-speaking officers remains at about 17 percent of the force.
The language barrier threatens public safety by allowing criminals to escape before translators arrive on scene and by slowing down the time it takes to bring charges against lawbreakers.
“Being able to provide good services to the citizens is the bottom line,” said Mesa Police Association president Fabian Cota. “The fact that officers can’t communicate with victims ... kind of means they are receiving inferior service.”
And it’s not just the public that’s in danger.
The inability to communicate puts officers’ lives at risk, too.
Mesa police Chief George Gascón said he is exploring ways to increase the number of Spanish-speaking officers in the city, but budget constraints leave him with few options.
“We recognize it’s an urgent public safety need. Quite frankly we don’t have the luxury of saying, 'Learn English,’” Gascón said.
“Sometimes communication is a two-way street. You need to have a mutual understanding and a mutual sensitivity.”
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Last year Mesa spent nearly $118,000 to translate 911 calls that were not in English .
More than 99 percent of the time, the calls were in Spanish.
In Mesa’s large 120-employee communication center, only five people speak Spanish. Since those people aren’t always available to take the calls, and emergencies require fast action, 911 operators must rely on a private service called Language Line.
“The first thing operators do is identify the language and look around the room and transfer a call to a (translator),” said Cari Zanella, Mesa communications administrator. “The second line of defense is the Language Line.”
The Language Line works by linking a caller and dispatcher with a translator for instant help.
The line takes only about half a second to use for Spanish speakers, and slightly longer for other languages.
From Sept. 1, 2006, to Aug. 31, Mesa’s dispatchers handled 16,500 calls involving 23 different languages. Nearly all of the foreign language calls were in Spanish with just a few in other languages, mostly Vietnamese and Farsi.
Of the 6,809 languages spoken in the world, Language Line gives Mesa dispatchers access to 98.6 percent of them, according to department figures.
“One of the hardest things when I was an operator was when you couldn’t distinguish the language,” Zanella said.
But in such cases, if the calls are 911 emergencies, operators will dispatch officers to the scene.
“A lot of people are hysterical and freaking out, so the most job satisfaction a 911 operator can have is (knowing) help is on the way,” she said.
Lost in translation
But even though dispatchers can be assured that police are en route, it can still be scary for officers.
During some Spanish-speaking 911 calls, police are dispatched to a location with little or no information on the incident, while 911 operators work to translate the call.
“It is a dynamic situation and we need to get the information out now,” Cota said. “Time is of the essence ... or these people are going to get away.”
In some cases, the officer arrives to find hysterical people, blood and witnesses trying desperately to communicate — with no success if the officer doesn’t speak Spanish.
Gascón is trying to solve the problem by exploring an Internet language program that could help officers become proficient in basic Spanish for a reasonable cost. He also is trying to diversify the police force at the request of City Manager Chris Brady.
But officers say the extra pay to become Spanish certified isn’t always worth the effort.
Mesa’s Spanish Rover program, which deploys Spanish-speaking officers to incidents and crime scenes, is especially busy. In the past two years, two to four Spanish-certified officers have participated in the program, which pays an additional 5 percent of an officer’s salary.
The program is good for the community because it allows officers to call out a translator at a moment’s notice, but tough on the officers, who must work long, difficult hours for a tiny bit of extra pay.
“It’s difficult for us to get them and keep them because they get burned out,” said Sgt. Tony Abalos, who runs the program. “They are usually gone in two years.”
And some officers who speak Spanish even keep it a secret so they aren’t called upon for extra duties.
Phoenix police spokeswoman Stacie Derge said her department offers a hefty paycheck for bilingual officers: $10 extra per hour for all the time they’re speaking another language on duty.
Gascón said the Los Angeles Police Department has assembled a force that has 40 percent Spanish speakers.
But in the immediate future, Mesa officials said there’s no quick solution to combat their language barrier.
“The whole city is really behind the times in terms of serving the Latino community,” said Carmen Guerrera, a 30-year Mesa resident, who sits on the board for the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.
“(But) I think the police have done a lot of good work in the past year. We have a new chief who is very sensitive and is doing his best.”
Mesa officer Aaron Raine says about 75 percent of the calls he responds to in west Mesa come from Spanish speakers.
“I speak enough Spanish to greet and introduce myself and I kind of have an idea what’s going on from the call comments,” Raine says while cruising the streets of Mesa.
Family members and neighbors often help officers communicate on simple calls, but if the incident is criminal or a real emergency, Raine says he’ll call for help.
“A lot of them get frustrated when officers don’t speak Spanish,” Raine says. “I’ve been on calls where people are yelling at me because I don’t speak enough Spanish.”
Raine says he’d eventually like to take the time to learn the language, to be able to help people and perform his job better.
But on a quiet October evening, Raine must go through the usual strained sentences and charades to make a basic traffic stop.
“Hello, can I please see your license?” the officer politely asks the driver of a truck.
“No English” the man replies.
“El luz on placa es no,” the officer says in broken Spanish as he attempts to explain the license plate light is not working.
The man responds with only a blank stare.
Raine gestures for the man to get out of his truck and the two walk around behind the vehicle. The officer points to the darkened license plate light and says “No.”
The man’s eyes widen as he shakes his head. The man is given a warning to replace his license plate light.
Though the traffic stop was OK that night, Raine and other officers know that getting someone out of a car is not always a good idea because it compromises officer safety.
“The little Spanish I can fumble through, the little English they can fumble through and gestures,” Raine says as he gets back into his cruiser. “That’s how it gets done.”