CLEARWATER — Police officer Sergio Fidelis was on patrol with a partner who didn't speak Spanish when they saw a guy come out of an apartment and shoot a gun toward someone else.
They called out to him in English. The man slid a 9mm gun in the waist of his pants. But as the officers approached, the man grabbed for his gun again.
Fidelis, using Spanish this time, ordered the guy to put his hands up. And only then did the man raise his hands high in the air.
"I believe if I didn't say something in Spanish he may have reached for that weapon, and it may have caused us to discharge our weapons," Fidelis said, recalling the incident from last summer.
Fidelis later learned that the man spoke chiefly Spanish. The city estimates that about 18 percent of Clearwater's population is Hispanic. Many speak little or no English. And daily, Clearwater police end up in situations where knowing Spanish can help them assist victims and investigate crimes more quickly, said Fidelis, the department's Hispanic outreach officer.
To help officers better communicate with the city's Hispanic community and foster more trust with them, the department is implementing a Spanish training program using Rosetta Stone, language learning software.
A $6,625 grant, through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, will provide funds for a one-year online subscription to the software. Within a couple of weeks, 25 officers will have access to Rosetta Stone online. Fidelis hopes that at least 50 officers will be able to take advantage of the program.
Just eight of the city's 260 officers are bilingual, said Fidelis, who spoke Portuguese as a child in Brazil and studied Spanish in school after his family came to the United States. Officers who don't speak Spanish can use interpreters provided by the Hispanic Outreach Center. They're a great tool, said Fidelis, but it would be better if more officers could converse directly with Spanish speakers.
Fidelis thinks the convenience of the program will make it easier for officers to learn Spanish. When they're off work, they'll be able to access Rosetta Stone any time, day or night. They'll also be allowed to use the courseware three hours a week on the clock. Of course, if calls come in while they're training, they'll respond to those, he said.
Other law enforcement agencies throughout the country have used Rosetta Stone to help their officers learn Spanish.
Sgt. Rick Stelljes of Pinellas County Schools Police said the department provided the software to several officers. So far, most have had limited success because they chiefly have access to the software during work hours and once the school year began, they had little time to use it, he said.
The Sherman Police Department in Texas has been using the software for about two years as part of a comprehensive program, said Capt. Ken Francis, who is bilingual. The department bought several copies and makes them available to officers. It also offers an eight-week Spanish course in partnership with Austin College, Francis said.
The software works best for officers who practice regularly and try to use Spanish in the community, he said.
"If they do that, Rosetta Stone can be very effective," Francis said.
Clearwater has tried other methods. Last summer, more than two dozen Clearwater police officers took a weeklong course to learn the basics of Spanish.
But Fidelis, who researched various language-learning programs and chose Rosetta Stone, said officers need more time to learn Spanish and more opportunities to speak it.
Nikole Eaton and Jason Jones, two Clearwater officers patrolling the East Gateway district on Tuesday, said they were eager to try out the courseware. The area they patrol is about 60 percent Hispanic and getting a better grasp on Spanish would be especially helpful for them, they said.
Other local law enforcement agencies also realize the importance of being able to communicate with Spanish speakers.
More than 7 percent of Pinellas County's population is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2008. And from 2000 to 2007, the county's Hispanic population increased by more than 20,000 people, the Pew Hispanic Center says.
In September, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office began a training program of its own, offering deputies yearlong Spanish courses.
About a decade ago, Clearwater's police department began reaching out to the Hispanic community. And in 2001, it partnered with the YWCA Tampa Bay to open the Hispanic Outreach Center on Franklin Street, which is now managed by Pinellas Core Management Services.
Since then, the city's Hispanic population of about 20,000 has increased by at least 6,000 people, according to some city estimates.
Fidelis says his ability to speak Spanish has given him the opportunity to work a variety of cases and communicate directly with virtually everyone he interacts with on the job.
"I don't have to call an interpreter," Fidelis said. "I want less limitations for the officers."
Times staff writer Doug Clifford contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.