In his 15 years in police work in Arizona, Tempe officer Stan Archer has responded to numerous calls involving Spanish-speaking residents.
But Archer, along with the majority of East Valley police officers, does not speak Spanish.
Instead, he must wait for a translator to arrive at a scene, or, if a Spanish-speaking officer is not available, he has to depend on people nearby or children who are learning English in school to help out.
Almost one in five Arizonans — 19.9 percent — speaks Spanish at home, a ratio that nearly all East Valley police agencies have been unable to mirror within their departments. The greatest discrepancy is in Tempe, where 13.2 percent of people speak Spanish at home while only 6 percent of police officers in that city speak the language.
In Chandler, 15.6 percent of households are Spanishspeaking while only 8.6 percent of officers know the language.
"We haven’t been able to keep up with it," Chandler Police Chief Sherry Kiyler said. "We probably won’t ever get enough Spanish-speaking officers to be able to always get one" when needed.
In Mesa, police Sgt. Tony Abalos said the problem will only get worse.
"With all the drop houses now, we might have 40 people who don’t speak English and maybe only one Spanishspeaking officer," said Abalos, who directs the department’s Spanish program. "The language barrier in general creates so much tension. "
A CALL FOR HELP
The language barrier often starts with police and fire dispatchers when Spanishspeakers call 911 in the midst of an emergency.
The dispatchers are trained to say in Spanish, "Is this an emergency?" and "Don’t hang up the phone."
Then Language Line takes over.
The northern Californiabased company provides translation services to 15,000 emergency service agencies across the United States, including Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Apache Junction, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Rural/Metro.
After a seamless transfer, a Language Line representative gets the needed information and relays it to a fire or police dispatcher — a process that takes 45 percent longer than the average 911 call.
"It’s better than not having any translators at all," said Gary Melton, a dispatch shift supervisor for Mesa, Apache Junction and Gilbert fire departments and Mesa police. "I don’t know what we would do without it. We have one to two Spanish speakers here every shift, but they can be tied up with other calls or not here. Language Line is always available."
Last year, an estimated 9,600 calls in 23 languages were interpreted by Language Line for Mesa alone, costing the city about $84,000 annually. Of those calls, 99.2 percent were Spanish.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Mesa officer Darren Rigsby said responding to a call in Spanish can be just as frustrating for police.
"I understand what they are saying for the most part, but when I try to speak (Spanish,) I sound like a moron," he said.
Officers dedicated to Spanish calls are appreciated by colleagues who in the past sometimes waited for hours for translation services. "I still have to wait, but it’s not as extraordinarily long as it used to be," Rigsby said.
Officer Conrad Cascio is one of two Mesa police officers who respond primarily to Spanish-speaking calls citywide as part of a pilot program launched in August.
In one example, the young Hispanic officer spent 12 hours on a complex child-abuse case where everyone involved spoke Spanish, turning his usual 12-hour shift into a 16-hour work day.
"When it comes to cases like that, I’m it," Cascio said.
Cascio said that a knowledge of the culture is almost as important as speaking the language.
"The Hispanic family would rather take care of problems within the family, so if they are calling police, you know it’s a problem," Cascio said. "They get frustrated with officers who don’t speak Spanish who respond to the calls. (For translations) the officer has to rely on family members, who won’t be impartial, and children, who translate word-for-word instead of meaning-for-meaning."
Cascio said the Hispanic community becomes frustrated when its members realize that there aren’t enough Spanish speakers.
"They think, ‘Why call police if they’re not even going to understand what’s going on?’ " he said.
Jesus Savala, 45, who speaks little English, encountered a frustrating language barrier when his car was burglarized in Chandler.
"There was no one who could speak Spanish, so they told me to wait," Savala said in Spanish. "I waited two hours, no one came. They had forgotten. Four hours later, it was too late and they couldn’t help me catch who did it."
But many Spanish speakers said that as the number of bilingual officers in their communities slowly increases, so does their trust in police.
"(Hispanics) wish for more police who speak Spanish," said Laura Hernandez, a Chandler resident who doesn’t speak English. "There aren’t enough that are needed to help people."
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
Tempe assistant police chief Tom Ryff said the department is aggressively working to hire staff to address the underrepresentation of minorities.
"It’s a valid concern. We’re not ready to deal with the influx of Latino Hispanics coming into our community," Ryff told residents at a public forum earlier this year. "Every agency in the Valley is facing the same issue."
Mesa police, pleased with the initial success of their Spanish program, are expected to add a third officer dedicated to Spanish calls to be stationed in the Falcon Field District in the central part of the city.
The department also relies on officer Alex Moran to provide translation services on weekends and during driving-under-the-influence enforcement details, paid for by a $25,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
Many municipalities, including Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and Scottsdale, offer paid incentives to officers who are certified Spanish speakers.
In Gilbert, the percentage of Spanish-speaking officers actually exceeds the percentage of Spanish-speaking households in the community.
"There’s a lot of interest on the part of officers seeking the knowledge of having the bilingual capacity," said Gilbert police Sgt. Jeff Esslinger. "They receive an extra bonus when they go out of their way to do something for other cases. It motivates them to want to be used."
But Tempe officer Stan Archer said he knows a few fluent officers who choose not to become certified translators because of the increased responsibilities.
Many agencies offer basic Spanish training for officers a few times each year, but the classes are referred to as "very basic."
Scottsdale police are hoping to offer a 10-day Spanish immersion course in Sonora, Mexico, for its intermediate and advanced speakers, said detective Ron Bayne.
Apache Junction’s department was forced to cut its Spanish class a few years ago, and funds aren’t there to revive it yet, said Sgt. Dick Virgil. The city does not offer monetary incentives for its certified Spanish speakers.
The city struggles to manage Spanish calls with its small bilingual staff: One sergeant and one detective who both work the day shift and two dispatchers who work at night.
"We find at times we have to access outside agencies, like Mesa, Pinal (County) and Maricopa County (sheriffs’ offices) to supplement what we have available here," Virgil said.