He can bridge language gap

Spanish interpreter helps police deal with fast-growing population

March 15, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

James Santana left New York a decade ago, but much of his hometown is ingrained in him.

It is not only in his accent but also in his upfront personality. A former telephone repair technician who jokes that the closest he came to police work in his previous life was "fixing their phones on Rikers Island," Santana was recently hired by the Howard County Police Department as the agency's first Spanish- speaking civilian interpreter.

"There's definitely a need," Santana, 58, said one recent afternoon, sitting in a conference room at police headquarters in Ellicott City. "These people come from a lot of situations where they don't trust the police in their own country. They are taken advantage of by their own police force. To come here with the language barrier, culture differences ... they think that we're the enemy."

Santana's new job entails aiding police in situations that involve language issues, whether it means defusing a disagreement over a parking ticket or helping to explain why a family member has been detained. He has been on the job a little more than a month, and he makes it clear that his is strictly a supporting role.

"The situation is normally calm when I get there, at least so far it has been," Santana said.

Santana moved his family to Columbia in 1999 after visiting a friend who lived there. He wound up working at two car dealerships, selling vehicles at both and administering loans at one of them.

Santana, the father of two grown daughters, is involved in the community through Boy Scouts and Little League and heard last year that the Police Department was looking for an interpreter to work with officers and the growing Hispanic population.

Cpl. Alan Schaeffer, a 16-year veteran who has been instrumental in developing the department's outreach program to help make minority groups feel comfortable dealing with police, says the hiring of Santana is a significant step.

"There's a difference between speaking the language and being part of the culture," said Schaeffer, who was born in Puerto Rico and speaks fluent Spanish.

County Council member Calvin Ball, whose district includes a large number of Hispanic families, said: "This is a great step in the right direction. It is vital that everyone in our community feels safe. It is unfortunate when members of our community are uncomfortable going to police."

Santana understands that some have reason to be nervous about the police.

"A lot of them are here illegally, so that is also an issue for them," Santana said with characteristic bluntness. "But they're hard-working people. Sometimes they're their own worst enemies. They do need a vehicle in this area, and they take chances and drive without licenses. I feel bad for them, but the law is the law. That's what I explain to them."

Chief William J. McMahon is sensitive to the fact that some Howard residents are in the United States illegally. But he said the impetus for creating a "pilot program" wasn't solely about that.

"I don't think that was our push; it was recognizing where our needs were," McMahon said. "It is really independent of the whole immigration thing."

McMahon said that the need for police outreach is significant.

"When you listen to our police radio, it isn't too long before someone is asking for a Spanish interpreter," the chief said.

Though the county's recorded Hispanic population is small - 4 percent according to the latest census figures - McMahon believes it is larger than measured. While it is significantly smaller than the 11 percent Korean population, the language and cultural barriers with the Hispanic community seem to be more significant, the chief said.

"You hate to make broad-brush statements, and I won't, but the Korean community seems to have fairly good support services they have built themselves," he said. "The Hispanic community is made up of people from 18 different countries that may not get along. I would say their language needs have been greater, more so than other communities."

Santana quickly got a glimpse of that need. As he moved around the county familiarizing himself with the various police services, he spent one morning with a 911 emergency dispatcher. In the course of two hours, four calls came in requesting help from someone speaking Spanish.

In the past, one of the county's 12 Spanish-speaking officers would have had to leave his patrol in one part of the county to help interpret in another. Now, Santana will get the call.

"We're looking at someone like James who would have the time and might have a little more flexibility to move around the county helping do some simple things," McMahon said, adding that the county's three most recent classes graduating from the academy have learned basic Spanish. "We want him out in the community helping our dispatchers and our officers."

Santana's hiring is part of a countywide initiative to serve its growing multiethnic population. Programs being implemented include distributing brochures and posting signs in Spanish telling people how to contact police.

"We're not the only part of county government struggling with this need," McMahon said. "It's a pilot program; we hope it works out. Just my sense is that it will and we'll be looking for ways to expand it."

Santana admits he'll have to watch his tendency to get emotionally involved in the plight of those he's trying to help.

"I try to keep my feelings out of it, which I have to learn," he said.

But he has no worries about situations heating up while he's on the scene.

"I have a little bit of a New York background," he said. "I know how to take care of myself a little bit."

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