1. Archive

First responders try to bridge language barrier

"What's that word?" asks Peach County Deputy Sheriff Shane Broome, peering into his "Survival Spanish" textbook.

Prodded by classmates - all public safety officers from central Georgia - Broome reads aloud "a la izquierda," or "to the left." Then his teacher continues around the room, having the two dozen students repeat basic commands in Spanish.

"It's been a big problem," Broome said later of his inability to speak with the many Hispanics who don't speak English that he stops while patrolling Interstate 75. "It's hard to even know if they're even able to drive. I'd try to take the one or two words I know - I know driver's license, "licencia" - and sign it out."

Every day, emergency responders and law enforcement officers nationwide help non-English-speaking people whose lives might be in immediate danger. The job is challenging for small agencies in the South, which has seen an influx of Hispanic residents.

Dispatchers and officers are going out of their way to learn Spanish and departments are recruiting bilingual employees and buying translating technology as they adapt to changing demographics.

It all starts at 911 centers. Over the last two years, there's been increasing demand nationwide for on-the-phone interpreters.

With increasing pressure on police to help enforce immigration laws, tensions between immigrants and officers run high and the language barrier hurts both.

In border states like Arizona, long accustomed to a strong Hispanic presence, some agencies resent the added pressure of learning a new language.

"I'm not going to train my officers to speak Spanish when the illegals are in this country," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has offered inmates English classes.

But officers are trying to understand and make themselves understood. In northern Georgia, where the carpet industry attracts thousands of immigrants, State Patrol Lt. Kermit Stokes outfitted troopers with a $850 device that translates commands in various languages.

Many officers say they're happy to take classes that cover basic vocabulary and culture.

"I don't mind trying to learn to understand them because I have the opportunity," said Broome, the sheriff's deputy.