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Police strive to recruit bilingual officers

As the census shows increased numbers of minorities, law enforcement agencies try to reflect that diversity.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
St. Petersburg police Officer Gabiel Lopez is part of a force that speaks a total of 19 foreign languages but struggles to reflect the demographics of the community.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2001


This kind of communication breakdown is becoming more common: Police officers are sent to a car crash or a domestic quarrel or a street robbery. At the scene, they find a crime victim or a criminal or a crucial witness who speaks no English.

The officers call for a translator, and then everybody waits. And they wait. And they wait.

Local police departments want to make the wait shorter, but that is proving to be a challenge.

The number of Hispanics and Asians in the Tampa Bay area doubled in the past decade, so law enforcement agencies are trying to hire more Hispanics and Asians.

The police say they want to reflect the communities they serve, but they are also doing it for purely practical reasons. They have to be able to talk to everyone, even those who speak only Spanish or Vietnamese.

The problem is finding bilingual police officers. Everybody wants them.

"The competition for that pool of applicants is fierce," said Clearwater police Deputy Chief Dewey Williams. His department, like others, is scrambling to keep up with the changing population.

One of every 11 Clearwater residents is Hispanic. But of 252 Clearwater police officers, only five speak Spanish.

"Those five officers are being run ragged. They're busy translating for everybody else," Williams said. "And it's a drain on manpower and a real time-eater when you have to wait for someone to translate."

Clearwater has a new strategy. It's chipping in an extra $50-a-week stipend for bilingual officers, and it now has 15 civilian translators -- independent contractors who take turns being on call.

Local police departments and sheriff's offices say they try to shape their work forces to mirror the larger population. But census figures showing a sharp rise in the Hispanic population caught some agencies off guard.

"We were surprised by the amount of the increase," said Sgt. Marsha DeWeese, in charge of recruiting for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"Now that this census is out, we will try to match the demographics of our community," said Maj. Mary Peters, who oversees recruiting for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Law enforcement agencies say they do this voluntarily. But in rare cases, the federal government will take steps if an agency falls too far behind.

"The only time that happens is when there's a blatant deficiency," Peters said.

In 1980, for instance, the Pinellas County government and its Sheriff's Office had to agree to hire more minorities after the federal government decided the county was discriminating against women, blacks and Hispanics. Pinellas County still operates under that agreement.

St. Petersburg has 14 Hispanic officers and six Asian officers in a force of about 540. The city tries to recruit Hispanics through the Hispanic officers it already has. It tries to recruit Asians through an Asian crime watch, but it's hard to find Asians who want to be police officers, Peters said.

"Because of where their parents or grandparents came from, they're very wary of law enforcement officers," Peters said. "Because they weren't treated well by law enforcement."

Police recruiters run into other roadblocks.

"Especially in your Hispanic population, the young women do not see law enforcement as a viable career option," DeWeese said. "Their cultural mores don't dictate this type of career for women."

About 12.5 percent of Hillsborough sheriff's employees are Hispanic. The agency mistakenly thought that matched the county's population. Now that the U.S. Census Bureau says otherwise, the sheriff's office plans to catch up.

The county is now 18 percent Hispanic, although DeWeese said that represents Hillsborough's total population and not its employable population.

The difference? Age and education.

Census figures show that a disproportionate number of Hispanics are younger than 18. As an example, 9 percent of Clearwater residents are Hispanic; but just counting the adults, only 7.9 percent are Hispanic.

Law enforcement officers must meet education requirements. The Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices require high school diplomas. St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa require 60 college credit hours. Largo requires a four-year degree.

"The raw population figures do not necessarily represent those that are qualified for the job," DeWeese said.

Bilingual officers are much in demand. Police departments keep lists of employees who speak second languages. St. Petersburg police employees speak a total of 19 foreign languages -- mostly Spanish, French and German, but also languages such as Vietnamese, Laotian, Russian and Thai.

For the police, communication breakdowns aren't merely inconvenient. In tense situations, they can be dangerous.

"Officers sometimes take aggressive action when a Spanish-speaking person does not understand their commands," said Dennis Martin of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. "That person keeps moving forward or does not take their hands out of their pockets. It can escalate quite rapidly."

Local Asian leaders would like to see more Asian police officers.

St. Petersburg has six Asian officers out of about 540. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has eight Asian deputies out of 888.

"That's one in a hundred," said Bun Hap Prak, director of the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center in St. Petersburg. "They should double that."

Pinellas County is 2 percent Asian.

Recently, Prak was delighted to meet two Asian police officers in St. Petersburg uniforms.


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