LARGO — Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Angela Longgood will soon have a new weapon in her crime-fighting arsenal: Español.
"A lot of times, we're on patrol, and you'll get flagged down for something," Longgood said. "They're pointing, and you have no clue."
To clear things up, Longgood must wait for one of the agency's handful of Spanish-speaking deputies, or resort to hand gestures to try to communicate.
"I fell like I'm playing charades," Longgood said.
Longgood is one of 18 deputies who have signed up for a yearlong, intensive Spanish class that aims to put more deputies on the streets with the ability to communicate with the county's growing Hispanic and Latino population.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Pinellas County's Hispanic population skyrocketed from 42,760 to 63,787 between 2000 and 2007, a 49 percent increase. And those numbers may not tell the whole story.
Many Hispanic residents go unreported because of their status as undocumented immigrants.
Beyond helping deputies perform traffic stops and investigate complaints, the program is intended as a community outreach initiative to better serve the Hispanic community, said Jo Ann Holloway, a Sheriff's Office training coordinator.
Deputies who become proficient will be better equipped to take reports, provide information and direct residents to social service agencies, Holloway said.
Establishing a level of trust through communication is an integral part of protecting and serving the Hispanic community, said Sgt. Chris Taylor, a patrol supervisor who has seen an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking residents he encounters in the High Point area.
"If I can't speak to them, there's not going to be any relationship or trust there," he said.
The program, which began in mid September, is broken into two parts, each made up of 144 classroom hours, which means three two-hour classes a week. The beginning classes include lessons in vocabulary, pronunciation, basic grammar and verb conjugation. The advanced section will include scenario-based instruction tailored to the deputies' needs.
The program, which costs $18,558, plus a one-time $500 start-up fee, is being paid for out of the agency's training budget, Holloway said. It is a partnership between the Sheriff's Office and Pinellas Technical Education Centers, which developed the curriculum and hired the instructor.
The ultimate goal is to train 60 to 70 deputies to become conversationally fluent, the Sheriff's Office said.
Spanish instructor Sandy Springer said she has been impressed with the pilot group.
"They are so motivated and so interested and responsible, I'm just blown away," she said.
Longgood said she has been listening to her instructional CDs in her car and practicing every chance she gets.
"I was a little worried at first," she said, "but after a couple of classes, I'm starting to get the hang of it."
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.