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New Waynesboro police officer helps break language barrier

July 04, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

Editor's note: This is the first story in a two-part series about the growing Hispanic population in Franklin County, Pa. In part two, read about how agencies in Franklin County are toppling language barriers.

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- William Gonzalez doesn't sound like other officers in the Waynesboro Police Department when he speaks.

His family moved from the Dominican Republic when he was 3 years old and raised him in New York City. He lives in Chambersburg, Pa., and works part time for the Waynesboro and Gettysburg, Pa., police departments.

In those communities, Gonzalez meets Spanish-speaking residents who hail from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He views being bilingual as an important skill for work.

"They think something's going to go wrong because (officers) don't speak their language," Gonzalez said. "They're comfortable talking to me."

Gonzalez, 37, started working for the Waynesboro Police Department on June 24 after resigning from a position with the Washington County Sheriff's Department. The former truck driver said he believes law enforcement is his true calling.

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"I like to interact with the community and help people out," he said.

Waynesboro Police Chief Mark King said having a bilingual officer for the first time will improve case efficiency and "bridge the gap" with people who speak Spanish.

"It's going to allow us to create a better relationship with the Hispanic community," King said. "Not knowing the language creates a barrier."

Gonzalez saw a newspaper advertisement for an opening with the Waynesboro Police Department, then researched the position further on the Internet. He thought about how his Spanish language skills could help Waynesboro like they help Gettysburg, where he communicates with someone in Spanish every day he works.

"They have a large Hispanic population there," Gonzalez said.

Police in Cumberland Township, near Gettysburg, borrow Gonzalez when they need translation assistance. He said he's taught colleagues key phrases.

King said the regular mutual-aid agreement would allow Gonzalez to assist Washington Township, Pa., police if he's on duty.

The Washington Township, Greencastle and Mercersburg police departments do not have Spanish-speaking officers.

Chambersburg has a part-time officer who is bilingual. The borough council is considering adding a full-time, Spanish-speaking police officer and firefighter, Police Chief David Arnold said.

"We just gave a course called 'Command Spanish' to get more ability within our agency," he said.

Arnold said officers often rely on someone in the affected household to translate or they call a "Language Line" for translation services. That service, available 24 hours a day, provides interpreters in various languages.

"We use that service probably a couple times a month," Arnold said.

The monthly bill is typically $20 to $30, he said.

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