Norristown police are learning Spanish

Department seeks to strengthen relations with Latino immigrants

March 11, 2001|By Jacob Quinn Sanders | Jacob Quinn Sanders,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORRISTOWN, Pa. - The Norristown Police Department had no Spanish-speakers among its 65 officers and eight civilian employees.

With a swelling Latino population, many of whom are young and left behind families to come to this country, police and community leaders feared that mistrust of authorities might worsen.

To strengthen his force and its relations with Latinos locally, Police Chief Russell Bono began encouraging members of the department to volunteer for the state police "survival Spanish" course.

So far, eight officers, including one lieutenant and one detective, and six civilians have taken the three-day, 18-hour course at the state police Southeast Training Center in Skippack, Bono said. Five more officers are to begin the course soon.

The department pays the $15 fee for participant.

Training focuses on traffic stops, collecting basic information - name, address, nature of the crime - and helping summon ambulances, said state police Cpl. Olegario Martinez, who teaches the course.

A three-day semester

"Don't get me wrong, they're not going to be proficient," he said. "But we try to give them a semester's worth of Spanish in three days."

Motor patrol Officer Jason Burton, who took the course last year, said "survival Spanish" made for better, faster police work, but it also helped relax Spanish-speakers uncomfortable with their command of English.

"It's very burdensome to a lot of individuals when they can't communicate," Burton said. "I know it is for me. Before I took the class, it was sometimes almost impossible for me to do my job. If you can speak to them in their own language, they can at least calm down a little and not worry as much about dealing with you."

Martinez and Burton stressed the need to practice Spanish skills once the classes end.

Burton said he hoped to continue learning Spanish at a workshop later this year.

The course is somewhat different for civilian police employees, Martinez said. With them, he focuses on the alphabet, colors and sizes - things used to describe people and objects such as stolen cars.

`Doesn't help me'

Millie Law, who works in the Norristown records department, said that so far "survival Spanish" had helped her little.

The specific training, she said, did not teach her enough of the language to ask pertinent questions or determine the severity of people's problems.

"I can see how in some ways you could use it," she said. "But it doesn't help me in this job."

Several meetings last year between Bono and Latino community leaders - notably Adamino Ortiz, executive director of Aclamo, a social-service organization serving Latinos in Montgomery County - led to the suggestion that officers enroll in the program.

Ortiz said Aclamo provided volunteer translators weekly to the police as a boom in Mexican immigration in the last two years doubled Norristown's Latino population to 10,000.

"There have been problems between the Latinos and the police," he said. "Faith issues. Trust issues. We think that now, with Chief Bono, that can be in the past. He, and so the police, are more accessible."

Feedback from the community now shows new positive attitude toward law enforcement, Ortiz said.

"Some of the Latinos here are beginning to trust the police," he said. "They see them trying to do better. I can't see that as anything but wonderful."

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