Mesa Police Chief George Gascón showed a lot of courage last week by holding a Spanish telethon to ask for crime tips, even as the state was certifying results from the November election that include a new constitutional amendment requiring some government business to be conducted only in English.
The telethon didn’t violate the new amendment, but it did irritate at least some Mesa residents who support protecting English as the state’s official language.
Voters who cast ballots for the Proposition 103 and three other measures related to illegal immigration were pursuing a future in which foreign visitors enter Arizona only with permission of the U.S. government, and those who want to work or live here openly embrace English and the dominant culture of their new country.
But police officers and firefighters have to deal with the world as it exists now with a multitude of Mexican and Latin American immigrants, both legal and illegal, who can speak or write only in their native tongue and cling to customs, rituals and preferences of their homelands. Police and fire departments are called into many situations involving such immigrants to protect life and health, and public safety officials must be able to be communicate effectively with them as victims, witnesses and suspected criminals.
That’s why the state Legislature wrote a specific exception to the requirements of Prop. 103 for “the actions or documents that protect public health and safety, including law enforcement and emergency services.” Lawmakers recognized that promoting an official language shouldn’t compromise efforts to keep everyone safe from harm, or to carry out justice.
Authors of Prop. 103 probably weren’t thinking about a 5½-hour, live television show with Spanish-speaking police officers inviting the public to call in tips about burglaries, drug deals or prostitution. But as the Tribune’s Jill Redhage reported Friday, Mesa police have noted a strong reluctance in neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants to report criminal activity, partly out of fear of deportation and partly because of poor experiences with corrupt offcials in their countries of origin.
Crime that goes unreported, and therefore can’t be investigated by police, usually spreads elsewhere and frequently grows more violent as the criminals expand on their greed. So Gascón is reaching out to those who speak Spanish and is providing them opportunities to bring crime in its earliest stages to his department’s attention.
The rest of us can reach for the future goal of every resident becoming fluent in the American way of life. Gascón and the Mesa Police Department must address the problems of today, if even that means talking to many residents in another language they understand better.