Ariz.officers learn verbal tools of their trade in "Spanish for Cops"

By Bill Coates
Arizona Capitol Times  

The convenience store had just been robbed. The first police officers on the scene had to get descriptions of suspects and where they went - all in Spanish.

That was the scenario laid out by Marty Moreno, the instructor for what can best be described as "Spanish for cops. " Most of the students, it happened, were Phoenix police officers.

They were learning the verbal tools of their trade in a language foreign to most of them, but spoken by an increasing number of people in Arizona--as well as the rest of the country.

Mr. Moreno took role of witnesses to the robbery as he paced about the front of the classroom, along with instructor Bill Moloney, a Scottsdale police detective.

"No camisa," said Mr. Moreno, himself a retired Tucson police lieutenant. He now is project coordinator of the Spanish for law-enforcement officers program in the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

"No shirt?" the student replied. Another student asked.

"I didn't hear what color shorts he was wearing. " The first student replied. "Roja."

Having established that one of the robbers had no shirt and red shorts, the discussion turned toward what kind of vehicle they drove.

About 20 students took part. Their classroom, in this case, was on the campus of the Phoenix Police Academy Classes held throughout state But Mr. Moreno takes his law-enforcement Spanish classes all around the state. He has taught Spanish to officers in Showlow, Yuma, Kingman and Bullhead City-- among other places.

This is the basic class, a five-day, 40-hour course. Mr. Moreno also helps teach a 10-day Spanish immersion class at the Arizona Correctional Officers Training Academy in Tucson. In the immersion class, law-enforcement officers live on campus. By day 3, they must speak only Spanish.

With either class, Mr. Moreno said, "we really tailor the program to law enforcement itself. Officers learn how to conduct a traffic stop in Spanish. How to conduct a basic investigation in Spanish. How to conduct a DUI investigation in Spanish. " He works with Partners In Training, a Tucson consulting firm that has developed curriculum and materials for teaching Spanish to police. A Partners In Training Web site says law-enforcement agencies must deal with "changing demographics. "

Citing the U.S. Census Bureau, it adds that Hispanics will be the largest minority group by 2010. Even in places like Tennessee - which Mr. Moreno has visited as a consultant - state troopers are coming across more drivers who speak only Spanish.

But few Tennessee troopers understand the language, he said. In making stops for driving under the influence, for example, troopers have not always handled the situation professionally. "They've resorted to such tactics as getting the keys out the ignition and throwing the keys into the woods," Mr. Moreno said. "What kind of message is that sending?" he added.

Mr. Moreno himself speaks English like a first language. It wasn't. He grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. He helped to start Spanish courses for Tucson police officers two or three years ago, when he retired from the department. Late last year, the Governor's Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) asked him to become project coordinator for law-enforcement Spanish courses.

Funds come from federal grant With a $100,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GOHS pays Mr. Moreno's salary, as well as travel expenses for officers taking the class - and if necessary - room and board. The course is free, if officers can get in. Mr. Moreno said classes have been filling up. "The response has been overwhelming," added Michael Hegarty, GOHS deputy director. The Phoenix Police Academy, he added, "is now going to make this a quarterly event. "

Academy Commander Harry Markley was one of the students in this class. He joined the discussion about what the robbers wore. Referring to Mr. Moreno, he said: "After meeting him and talking to him, we asked him to come out here."

Across the aisle from Mr. Markley sat officer Jolene Mangum. She had already taken a Spanish immersion class through Phoenix police. Now she was taking a refresher. Before she learned any Spanish, she said, the language barrier frustrated even routine police work.

"I would raise my voice, 'You can't park the car here!' They don't understand that," she said.

As Spanish is not a requirement, the Phoenix police department has procedures when English-only officers deal with somebody who understands only Spanish (or another foreign language.) The procedures don't include tossing a drunk driver's keys into the bushes.

An officer will ask the dispatcher to send a Spanish-speaking officer, said Detective Stacie Derge, a Phoenix police spokeswoman. "Generally speaking, there are Spanish-speaking officers available in each precinct. There might be times where they have to wait a little bit to get out there, but we usually have one available," Ms. Derge said.

For minor traffic offenses - that doesn't include DUI - officers "might try to issue a warning, or kind of muddle through," she said. But, in Mr. Moreno's view, time lost waiting for a Spanish-speaking backup could make a big difference. Officers first on the scene, if they speak the language, will be "able to obtain suspect information, determine if anybody's injured, if he needs medical assistance," Mr. Moreno said. But Spanish for police isn't just about language, Mr. Moreno said.

There's a cultural component as well. A failure to understand Latino culture, he said, cost one Texas constable his life. He had made a traffic stop, but could not understand what the three Latino men in the car were saying. One of the men got out of the car, then wrestled away the constable's guns and killed him. The killer, Mr. Moreno said, offered a sure sign that he might make a move - one the constable missed. "He removed his cowboy hat and put it on the roof of the car," he said. "Well, why would he do that? Because you don't want to get it dirty. That cowboy hat is a symbol, and it represents part of the Latino culture."

Spanish for 'raise your hands' In the basic class, students look for those warning signs. They also learn Spanish phrases they might need for so-called high-risk stops. Spanish for "raise your hands. " Or "put your hands on your head. " In addition, the basic class covers routine traffic stops, DUI investigations, getting witness statements.

After completing the 10-day immersion class, he added, officers will have a much better understanding of the language. The immersion class can devote more time to grammar and construction. Here, verbs are key. "Spanish is really built around verbs," Mr. Moreno said. For corrections officers, one important verb might be Spanish for "escape."

But there is a shortage of Spanish-speaking correctional officers throughout the country, Mr. Moreno said. Prison officers could be put at risk, he said, when inmates speak Spanish. "They could talking about anything - planning to escape, planning to assault the officer, planning the introduction of contraband and, you know, prisoners have all the time in the world," Mr. Moreno said.

As it happens, Partners In Training offers a 16-hour class tailored to corrections officers. Even officers who mostly deal with the media and the public are finding a knowledge of Spanish comes in handy, said Sgt. Harold Sanders, a DPS spokesman. Mr. Sanders took the 10-day immersion class in July. By knowing Spanish, he said, he now can reach out to the growing Hispanic community.

Next on his list, he said: Spanish-language news releases. 

Copyright 2006 Arizona Capitol Times (Dolan Media Newswires)  

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