Police Study Latinos' Language

June 24, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The words in this beginning Spanish class have an edgy quality: "Violento." "Pistola." "Kilogramo." "Sexo." "Accidente."

But they are part of the basic vocabulary in a new police training seminar in Annapolis designed to help officers from federal, state, county and city departments improve their relationships with fast-growing Latino communities by learning basic Spanish, street slang and cultural mores.

"This is called survival training," said Jose Alentado, an Arizona-based teacher with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center who concluded a one-week seminar for 54 officers yesterday. "It's Spanish taught by officers, for officers."

The course offers the staples of high-school Spanish, including verb conjugations and pronunciation drills, as well as lessons in bilingual police-speak. The result can be disconcerting: Students recite phrases such as "I like chicken" one minute, and "I will search for your child" the next.

Students in the classes say the continual influx of immigrants from South and Central America has created a communication barrier most agencies are not prepared to clear.

"It's becoming more and more frustrating," said Helene Cifalda, a law librarian at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center who flunked Spanish in college 15 years ago and attended the course this week, eager to learn the basics now.

"You want to be able to help inmates understand what their options are, what their charges are, what a public defender is," she said. "Instead, the inmates just can't communicate with us."

The classes, which cost $65 per person, include arrest drills in which police must handcuff mock suspects while speaking only Spanish. But the courses are not geared solely toward hostile encounters. Instead, police say, the bare-bones vocabulary and cultural knowledge could improve contacts in Latino communities by making police more approachable.

"When people hear you speaking Spanish, even if you make mistakes, they're going to be inspired," Mr. Alentado told one class of 27 officers last week. "They're not going to correct you."

. . . . Mr. Alentado offers practical tips. The Spanish words for water and trout -- "agua" and "trucha" -- also mean "Look out!" on the streets. "Cuete," "fierro" and "matona" all mean the same thing: gun. And calling a single woman "Senora," the equivalent of "Mrs.," can suggest she is not a virgin, he said.

Police are given a speedy break-down of popular religious traditions and a quick analysis of lingering tensions among various Latino ethnic groups. And because many police are not steeped in Latino traditions, they are given an outsider's guide to cultural faux pas.

Mr. Alentado tells police to approach the man of the house before any woman, in deference to the male-dominated Latino ** culture, to use the familiar only when addressing pets and children, to never touch religious artifacts. And he tells officers not to misinterpret what he called Latino body language, from more physical contact to less direct eye contact.

Several Latino residents in Annapolis said some of these tips won't apply across-the-board and complained that some lessons relied too heavily on cultural stereotypes. But most people were encouraged to hear the police were trying to mend the communication gap with more than the standard use of Spanish-language translators.

Residents at Allen Apartments on Forest Drive, one of the city's largest Latino enclaves, have little contact with police.

Cruisers pass the complex of gray buildings on Annapolis' southwestern border roughly once every two hours, but the residents rarely exchange words with authorities.

"The other people, the American people, they're the only ones who call the police," said Sara Torres, 18, from El Salvador. Ms. Torres, who is 6 1/2 months pregnant, is eager to move across town, saying the late-night parties at the complex make the place too noisy for an infant.

Ms. Torres, who has lived at the complex for three years, said she never thinks to call the police to quiet the neighbors, even when the sounds of breaking beer bottles and music wake her at 2 a.m.

Others said they would rather be invisible to police, recalling routine encounters with police in Central and South America that escalated quickly into violence.

"I don't tell them my name," said Amner Cardona Mendez, 19, who moved to the United States from Guatemala more than two years ago. "Too many people killed over there. So you stay by yourself. You don't care about nobody else. You care for yourself."

The course won't make police fluent in Spanish or eliminate cultural misunderstanding, but some officers said it at least will help initiate conversations that otherwise might never take place.

"We need to do whatever we can to keep the stress from building," said Danielle Bradshaw, a corrections officer at the county jail. "I mean, imagine yourself in a Mexican jail. You have no contact with your family. You have nothing. That's how it must feel."

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