By Maria Cestero & Xian Wornell
Twenty Suffolk County police officers have been sitting in on a pilot Spanish class since March 26, meeting for one hour twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays to learn important phrases and questions needed in the line of duty. The program will prevent future misunderstandings, innocent killings and wrongful arrests of Spanish speakers, Police Chief Stuart Cameron, founder of the program, said.
With 58 percent of Brentwood, Long Island, speaking Spanish, the department funds the seven and a half week pilot program.
“We are trying to make the department adapt to serve all our constituents,” Cameron said. “15 hours of Spanish is certainly not going to make you fluent, but it will give you an opportunity to convey to the public an urgency or reassurance to them.”
Officers will be trained to handle “L” calls, meaning language assistant calls. The plan is to have phones placed into 40 to 50 patrol cars abling officers to contact the bilingual officers. There are currently 102 certified spanish speaking officers in the department.
Cameron decided to start the pilot program after learning Spanish himself for 325 days.
“I spend about two hours a day speaking spanish,” Cameron said.
After seeing multiple miscommunications due to the language barrier, Cameron decided to contact Suffolk County Community College to implement a course.
“I think it will help improve the relationship between Hispanics and the police. They don’t have a good relationship, so having a class will help give a way for them to communicate,” Smith town resident, Ricardo Gonzalez-Argof siad.
Working in the third precinct serving Brentwood and Central Islip, where there is a high concentration of Spanish speakers, Deputy Chief Robert Waring,volunteered for the pilot program.
Recalling a previous interaction with a spanish speaker, Waring says he was fortunate for his colleague who was with him. His colleague, Deputy Inspector Milagros Soto was a fluent Spanish speaker and was able to communicate to community members in Spanish.
“If officers improve their language skills they can communicate better with Spanish speaking community members,” Waring said. “The hope is people will feel more comfortable interacting with members of the police department and in turn we can better serve them.”
An online course called Spanishonpatrol.com is offered for emergency personnel. In part for the inspiration to start this online program is accredited to a Colorado officer asking the founder, Kendal Knetemann, for help learning Spanish.
“I made the program to bridge the culture of the Hispanic and Public Safety communities. To build a Stronger relationship.” Along with the six month online course, the program features cultural tips for students to learn.
In first coming to the United States Knetemann didn’t know english very well. She was pulled over, she kept her eyes down, she was unaware that in America eye contact is considered a sign of respect unlike her latin roots.Learning not only the language but the cultural differences, such as eye contact for respect.
Offering an array of services for many problems that many Long Island Hispanic residents may face, the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Center, a non-for-profit Hispanic agency, Executive Director Margarita Grasing said, she hopes to see more cops learning spanish to help bridge a connection between the largest minority group in america to its english speaking counterparts.
“We [Nassau county] have a 17 percent Hispanic population. We need cops to communicate because they’re the largest minority in the United States,” the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Center, Executive Director Margarita Grasing Grasing said.
Suffolk County Police officers are studying to pass the spanish entrance exam, showing skills of basic spanish communication. As the pilot program is on its way to ending, Cameron believes it will be a success and will be planned again for the future.