La. police at a loss for words

Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
Many new residents in New Orleans speak only Spanish

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Slidell police Lt. Kevin O'Neill was dispatched to the City Motel recently to investigate a series of 911 calls in which the caller kept hanging up without saying a word.

He arrived to find several men with puzzled expressions huddled around the phone in their room.

"I asked them, 'What's going on? Why do you keep calling 911?'" O'Neill said.

One of the men launched into a lengthy explanation -- in Spanish.

Unable to understand what he was saying, O'Neill did what any veteran police officer would do: He called his wife.

"I asked her to talk to these guys on the phone and try to find out what the problem was," he said.

Essie O'Neill, who lived in Panama for six years as a child and is fluent in Spanish, quickly determined that the men were migrant workers from Guatemala who were trying to call home using a calling card that included the digits 911.

"They were just feeling homesick and wanted to talk to their families," said Essie O'Neill, a volunteer Police Department interpreter whose services are suddenly in high demand with the influx of Spanish-speaking workers helping to rebuild flood-ravaged homes.

Before Hurricane Katrina, her help was needed about once a month. Now she's called upon two or three times a week.

She's been so busy that police Chief Freddy Drennan is seeking fresh recruits to share the workload, signing up more than two dozen interpreters who speak Español.

"Before the storm, we had a small Hispanic population that was pretty much bilingual, but now we have a lot of people who only speak Spanish," Drennan said. "We're facing some interesting times, and we're not the only ones."

A growing issue

Law enforcement agencies throughout the New Orleans area and across the Gulf South are facing a language barrier formed by the post-Katrina demographic shift.

Many agencies in the region, including the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, are sending officers to take crash courses in Spanish, while others are leaning on volunteers or officers who already speak the language.

In Kenner, where the most recent census found the growing Hispanic population makes up about 14 percent of the city, police usually turn to one of three Spanish-speaking officers.

Kenner police sometimes call in members of local community groups who speak Spanish, but they can usually rely on the officers, a department spokesman said.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office maintains an interpreters bureau of 12 employees and community volunteers who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, German, Chinese and Korean and other languages.

The office was created in 1980 and is run through the community relations division, said Col. John Fortunato, the department's spokesman.

The participants are on call 24 hours day to assist investigators, said Fortunato, who did not have information on how often they've been used since Katrina.

The 70-officer Slidell Police Department, which has a reserve officer who speaks Spanish, recently tried to enroll four full-time officers in a three-day Spanish class in Gulfport, Miss., but the class was already filled.

"The demand for these classes is overwhelming," Capt. Kevin Foltz said. "It's the same story all along the Gulf Coast."

Demand is huge

The Regional Counterdrug Training Academy in Meridian, Miss., has turned away scores of police officers seeking to enroll in an introductory Spanish course, said Orrin Fuelling, the federal academy's training director.

"Every week, I get a call from another police department that wants to bring in half of its officers to learn Spanish," he said.

Fuelling said all 240 slots in the eight sections of the introductory class offered this year have long been filled.

The four-day "Survival Spanish" course focuses on key words and phrases that officers can use during traffic stops.

"We know you're not going to leave here fluent in Spanish, so we stick to basic commands like 'stop,' 'turn around' and 'show me your hands,' " Fuelling said.

He said officers also learn to recognize certain "danger words" so they can tell, for example, whether a driver they're questioning starts speaking in Spanish to a passenger about a hidden gun or knife.

The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office found slots for two detectives in an intensive 10-day Spanish camp hosted by a private police-training company next month in Indianapolis, spokesman George Bonnett said.

"From the time they sit down to breakfast until the time they go to bed, they speak only Spanish," he said, noting that sheriff's deputies encounter citizens who don't speak English nearly every day.

Other law enforcement agencies said they are stretched thin by additional post-Katrina responsibilities and can't afford to take officers off the street to enroll them in Spanish classes.

There are signs that some officers are taking matters into their own hands: An English-Spanish dictionary was visible on the dashboard of a Lake Pontchartrain Causeway police officer's patrol car at the scene of a recent crash.

Cultural barriers

"The language barrier is frustrating to people on both sides," Foltz said. "As police officers, we're in the business of helping people, but it's hard to help someone if you can't understand them."

In addition to the language barrier, Foltz said, officers must be aware of cultural differences. He said some Hispanic workers are wary of law enforcement officers because of experiences with corrupt police forces in their homelands.

"You don't want to handcuff a Hispanic suspect and put them on their knees because where some of these guys come from, the next thing that happens is they get a bullet to the back of the head," he said. "We don't want them to think we're a death squad."

Fuelling said police chiefs often tell him they want their officers to learn at least some Spanish because experts believe many of the demographic changes brought about by the storm will be permanent.

People of Hispanic descent comprised just 4.5 percent of the population in the seven-parish New Orleans metropolitan area before Katrina, according to U.S. Census data.

But many Spanish-speaking workers are expected to lay down roots here, possibly raising the percentage of permanent Hispanic residents into the double digits.

Just being heard

In Slidell, which had one of the lowest pre-Katrina Hispanic populations in the area, Essie O'Neill said she's enjoying the chance to practice her Spanish.

She said the people she helps police question often launch into elaborate explanations, eschewing the just-the-facts responses officers usually prefer.

"They need someone to hear them out," she said. "They always tell me the whole story from the very beginning because they're so relieved to finally be talking to someone who understands them."

Drennan emphasized that most of the Slidell officers' encounters with Spanish-speaking migrant workers are linked to language-based misunderstandings, such as the accidental 911 calls.

"I don't want to give people the impression that we're dealing with a Hispanic crime wave, because we aren't," he said.

Even so, O'Neill has helped with enough police interrogations and arrests that she carries a card in her purse with the Miranda rights in Spanish.

"Tiene usted el derecho de quedarse callado," the translation begins; it's Spanish for "You have the right to remain silent."

"I was really nervous the first time I had to read someone their rights, but it's also pretty exciting," she said. "This has given me a chance to be a part of my husband's work, and not many police officers' wives can say that."

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