Breaking down language barriers

Police and courts use interpreters on various cases

Police and courts use interpreters on various cases

April 16, 2006|By PEPPER BALLARD


Communication is key for Hagerstown Police Department dispatcher Ben Ros, who on a typical workday fields numerous calls from distressed city residents, some of whom speak little English.

"As soon as I hear the accent, I ask, 'Do you speak Spanish?'" said Ros, 31, who speaks the language fluently.

Police and court officials said they call on interpreters for a variety of languages, but most often for Spanish.

Ros, who was raised in Miami, mostly by his Cuban grandparents, has switched to Spanish on calls in the past three months "almost on a daily basis," he said. In response to the increase in the Spanish-speaking population here, Ros said he was asked by the department to become a state-certified interpreter.


Ros' application to become certified has been accepted, but he must pass written and oral exams before that happens, he said. In the meantime, he can serve as an interpreter without the certification.

To Julia Cardenas, interpreting for those who speak Spanish in court and for the local police departments is payback for the welcome she received when she and her husband, Hugo Cardenas, arrived in the United States from Peru 40 years ago, she said.

For the better part of 20 years, Cardenas and her husband were the only two on call to translate in Washington County, but Cardenas said that has changed in recent years as more interpreters have been needed.

Cardenas said she has noticed there are more Salvadorans and Mexicans moving into the area, but said interpreting for those from different Spanish-speaking countries is not difficult.

"It's just different intonations, like the people in New York speak in different ways from (people in) the South," she said.

"People from different countries have different phrases," she said. Sometimes they speak "lower or faster. The people who don't have too much education, they use more slang. That's a little more difficult, like 'What do you mean by this?'"

Becoming bilingual

For the Hagerstown Police Department, the increased need for interpreters was brought to light during a December homicide investigation, said Lt. Mike King, the department's Criminal Investigations Division supervisor.

The victim, Eliezer Rodriguez, 22, was stabbed in the chest and abdomen during a Dec. 10 fight in the 100 block of West North Avenue. Angel Teodoro Villatoro, 35, and Irving Atillo Benitez, 14, were charged in Rodriguez's death. Both are scheduled to go to trial in July.

Detectives investigating Rodriguez's death called on Ros and Cardenas to interview Spanish-speaking witnesses, King said.

Sgt. Paul Kifer said the department was trying to get Detective Lauren Robinson "some intensive Spanish training" to sharpen her skills. Robinson will not get certified, however, because it would be a conflict of interest to be a court interpreter and a police officer.

Ros and Robinson have translated for city police and other police departments.

Kifer said Spanish has been added to the curriculum at the Western Maryland Police Academy, which trains prospective city, county and smaller Maryland police department officers.

"It's because of the growing number of Hispanics," Kifer said. "It's important that we become bilingual."

King, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades and Maryland State Police Lt. Gregory Johnston, supervisor of the Hagerstown barrack, said they call from a list of volunteer interpreters when needed.

Mades said he sees the Spanish population growing as the county's population grows, but said it has not reached the point where the department needs to require deputies to speak Spanish. Nor does he see the need to hire an interpreter for the department, he said.

That doesn't mean police ability to communicate with those who speak Spanish is not a concern, he said.

Cards, handbooks and courses

Sheriff's Department Col. Doug Mullendore said some deputies enroll in a Spanish course offered through Hagerstown Community College, which touches on some basics for officers.

"We do know it's something that if you don't use it, you forget it," Mades said.

Mullendore said Spanish command cards are being printed for each deputy.

On top of that, deputies carry a handbook, "Spanish Speaking for Law Enforcement Officers," but Mades said he doesn't know whether deputies who find themselves in stressful situations are going to stop what they're doing and go for the book.

The book, he said, translates simple questions that might be asked by patrol officers, such as "When did it happen?" or "What did you notice?"

Maryland State Police Sgt. Ronald Ruff, who is the state police's training division in-service training program coordinator, said he helped develop and insert "Survival Spanish," a course to help troopers learn to speak Spanish, into the agency's annual mandatory training curriculum.

Troopers must complete two hours of the "Survival Spanish" course to maintain their credentials as troopers, Ruff said.

Capt. Dan Cornwell, training division commander, said "Survival Spanish" has been taught for the past two years.

"It gives them baseline Spanish information, so they can look for the signs, understand and try to communicate with someone who absolutely cannot speak English at all," Cornwell said.

Troopers also will receive booklets with Spanish translations, Ruff said.

Ruff said the program is in line with U.S. Department of Justice mandates, which state that if an agency receives federal funding, it "must be able to speak to people with limited English proficiency."

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