Ga. officers tackle language barrier

By Ryan Harris
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

DALTON, Ga. A worker at a Hispanic bakery said it was just a natural reaction when she bolted to the back of the building as soon as she saw a Dalton police cruiser pull into the parking lot.

The woman's fear of law enforcement quickly subsided when Officer Abraham Chiesa entered the store and began talking with bakery workers in Spanish.

As Officer Chiesa left, he gave police badge stickers to a group of children, and the bakery workers insisted he and his guests take slices of chocolate flan.

Breaking the language barrier and gaining the trust of the growing Hispanic community has become a major part of Officer Chiesa's job. He is one of few fluent Spanish-speaking officers who can do community policing at places such as the Pasteleria Carmen bakery.

"I translate in some form or fashion every day," said Officer Chiesa, 32.

"Whether it's a traffic stop I'm doing, and they feel more comfortable speaking to me in Spanish; whether it's a cops visit; whether it's a call; whether it's translating for another officer on a call, it's used everyday," he said.

Bilingual police officers are at a premium in places like Dalton which, according to the 2000 census, has a 40 percent Hispanic population. Most officials believe the actual Hispanic population is now closer to 50 percent in this city of 33,000.

Dalton Police Department spokeswoman Kristy Hunter said 30 to 40 officers on the Dalton force speak some Spanish. She was unsure how many are considered fluent.

Bilingual recruits are not offered financial incentives, but Ms. Hunter said officers are required to take 80 hours of Spanish before being promoted.

"That's the incentive," Ms. Hunter said. "In order to be promoted and receive a pay increase, you have to take that Spanish training."

América Gruner, president of the Coalition for Latino Leaders in Dalton, said having bilingual police is important to the Hispanic community, and more bilingual police officers need to be recruited.

"Imagine if you are detained, arrested or stopped, and you don't understand a word (the police) are saying," Ms. Gruner said.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said, however, he thinks there's a "myth" about the communication barrier. He said the gap "is probably not as great as the general public believes."

The sheriff said there are a half-dozen sheriff's officers who are "fairly fluent" in Spanish in Whitfield County, which has a 22 percent Hispanic population.

Other law enforcement agencies in North Georgia have smaller staffs to deal with the language barrier.

Probation officer Elia Wiggins' bilingual skills are employed to translate in Chatsworth, where 6.5 percent of the population is Hispanic. She said her work as a translator has doubled in the three years she has worked in Chatsworth.

The language barrier is less of an obstacle in Walker and Catoosa counties, which have about a 1 percent Hispanic population each, according to Census reports.

Even so, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said he keeps at least one officer on the force with Spanish language skills.

In Catoosa County, Sheriff Phil Summers said he doesn't have a bilingual officer, but he said the county can rely on a contract service for translators if needed.

And in Fort Oglethorpe, Police Chief Larry Black said his officers carry a "survival Spanish" handbook in their patrol cars, which helps them with basic law enforcement phrases when they are needed.

Georgia Police Academy Director Butch Beach said the need for more bilingual officers is widespread in Georgia. He said there are only "a scattered few (bilingual officers) across the state."

"We are not seeing less bilingual recruits," Mr. Beach said in an e-mail. "The issue is we are not seeing more."

Officer Chiesa said having more bilingual officers reduces errors in crime reporting and improves public safety by gaining the trust of Hispanics who may have come from cultures where police agencies or officers are notoriously corrupt.

Many illegal immigrants also are afraid to call the police to report serious crimes, the Dalton patrol officer said.

A rise in illegal immigrants has broadened the communication gap, Officer Chiesa said.

"For the most part, just like any other race, the Hispanic population is here to work hard, to bring up their families (and) to have a better way of life for themselves," he said.

"If they break the law, we have to enforce it. But if they don't break the law, and they are just here to live a decent life with their families, they will never have a problem out of the Dalton Police Department," Officer Chiesa said.

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Times Free Press

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