When Howard County Police Officer Diana Harden pulled over a car forrunning a red light recently, she found herself at a loss for words.
The driver spoke Spanish, and Harden did not. She had to call police headquarters to ask for an interpreter.
To bridge a language gap that has hindered some officers, Police Chief James N. Robey is offering a Spanish course. So far, Harden and17 of her colleagues have volunteered to take it.
"There have been occasions when victims of the crime were Hispanic and the officer on the scene did not understand the language and could not take a report," Robey said. Only six officers in the 280-member department speakSpanish, he said.
A survey of county officers showed that 75 percent had had contact with people who spoke a foreign language, mostly Spanish, in the past year, said Lt. Jay Zumbrun, commander of the department's research and planning division.
"We want our officers tobe able to communicate with everyone and be culturally sensitive," he said.
During a class last week with teacher Anibal Gonzalez, officerslearned verb tenses, plural articles and nouns. They repeated Spanish dialogue, mimicking a tape-recorded conversation.
"This is frustrating," said Officer Harden as teacher Anibal Gonzalez gave the tenses of the verb "to go."
Many of the officers in the morning Spanish class at the Hickory Ridge building in Columbia had come straight from overnight police shifts.
"I am tired, being up all night,"Officer Dan Besseck said. But he said he was taking the twice-weekly, two-month course "so I know enough Spanish to get by until we can get someone more proficient with the language to show up at the scene"of an accident or crime in which Spanish-speaking persons are involved.
According to the Maryland Office of Planning, Hispanics account for 2.6 percent of Maryland's population and 2 percent of Howard County's. Neighboring Montgomery County has the state's highest percentage of Hispanic residents, 7.4 percent. Prince George's County comes in second, with 4.1 percent.
In Montgomery County, police have hadthe opportunity to take Spanish for 10 years, and dispatchers transfer Spanish-speaking callers for assistance to translators at Andrews Air Force Base, a department spokesman said.