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After year of lessons, Pinellas deputies are using Spanish on streets

Deputy Jon Lopes explains a ticket in Spanish to Jorge Santiago, 28, of Clearwater. Lopes is one of 15 deputies who learned Spanish.


Deputy Jon Lopes explains a ticket in Spanish to Jorge Santiago, 28, of Clearwater. Lopes is one of 15 deputies who learned Spanish.


The man slowed when he saw the deputy's cruiser behind him, but it was already too late.

Inside a black, unmarked car, Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Jon Lopes quickly typed the tag number into a computer system.

Seconds later, a hit.

The man's license was suspended. The insurance on his car expired in April.

Information on the screen said his name was Jorge Santiago. He was born in 1982 and listed his race as Hispanic.

As Lopes turned on his lights and pulled even closer, the man quickly stopped in front of a house in the 300 block of Saturn Avenue. He opened his car door, stood up and started walking away.

"Senor! Alto!" (Mr.! Stop!) Lopes shouted into his speaker.

The man paused, looking back. The deputy kept talking.

"Venga aqui!" (Come here!)

The man looked startled, then his face fell. He moved back to his car, only a couple of steps away. He sat back in the driver's seat, dejected.

"The more you speak the language, the more respect you get from them," said Lopes, a traffic deputy in the northern part of the county. "You can see it in their faces when you walk up to their car and they think you're just going to be a gringo who doesn't know anything. … He was shocked."

• • •

For the past year, 15 deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office have been learning to speak Spanish as part of an intense pilot program the agency set up in partnership with the Pinellas Technical Education Centers.

The goal, officials say, is to better equip deputies who come into daily contact with the county's growing Hispanic population, which increased nearly 50 percent to 63,787 people between 2000 and 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Trying to teach deputies Spanish is not new, but most law enforcement agencies tend to send their officers to short, crash-course programs that focus only on basic commands.

Problems arise, however, when officers need to have more in-depth conversations, explain laws to people or interrogate them after an arrest.

"We are the first that we know of to ever do something like this," said Sandra Springer, a PTEC instructor who developed the curriculum for the Sheriff's Office. "It's been amazing. It really has."

The program, which costs near $18,000, is being paid for out of the agency's training budget.

A year ago, there were only a handful of people in the department who could speak enough Spanish to translate and effectively communicate with people who do not speak English.

But now, Springer's students, who celebrated with a graduation ceremony this month, have been added to the mix.

"They can respond to almost any call," she said. "I really think a program like this is very important. This is the way it is. The population is here, and we have to communicate with them."

• • •

The process hasn't been easy, deputies said.

Classes were two hours long, three days a week. Many of the deputies had to come in on their days off, or work around long schedules.

Yet they said the class has changed their lives and work.

Before the class, Lopes said, what should have been relatively routine traffic stops became ordeals because of the language barrier.

"Nobody could speak to these people," he said. "It was frustrating when you would stop someone who only spoke Spanish and you couldn't do anything. You can't write a ticket to someone that you don't know who they are."

Lopes, who said he always has been interested in languages, plans to continue to study the language and culture.

Every time he comes into contact with a Spanish-speaker, he tries out his skills. He listens to a local Spanish language radio station while he patrols Clearwater, Oldsmar and Dunedin.

He said many, like Santiago, seem surprised he knows so much.

Sheriff's officials said the ultimate goal is to train 60 to 70 deputies in Spanish. There's already a waiting list for future classes.

"I can speak to these folks and get the job done," Lopes said. "It's practical, and it makes sense. It has done nothing but help us in the community."

Reach Kameel Stanley at or (727) 893-8643.

After year of lessons, Pinellas deputies are using Spanish on streets 10/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 1:04pm]
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