Ideas worth stealing: Recruiting bilingual police officers

     The Lexington Police Department swearing in new officers in July 2014. (Josh James/WUKY)

    The Lexington Police Department swearing in new officers in July 2014. (Josh James/WUKY)

    How Oklahoma City found Spanish-speakers, and Lexington, Kentucky, created them.

    A few weeks ago, we published a story about Pennsylvania cities trying to recruit bilingual police officers. Although the Latino population is growing quickly in many cities, making up 40 to 60 percent of the population in some cases, police departments trying to hire Spanish-speaking officers are facing challenges.  With tight budgets, strict state laws and a shrinking pool of qualified applicants, it’s going to take creativity to reach the numbers they want to see.

    Pennsylvania isn’t the only state facing these challenges. There are lessons to be learned from other cities around the country that have found ways to recruit and develop bilingual officers.

    Finding Spanish-speaking officers

    The Oklahoma City Police Department faces significant challenges on a state level. The state passed an English-only ordinance in 2010, prohibiting translation of state forms, documents and signs into other languages. The state was 8.85 percent Latino at the time.

    But Oklahoma City is nearly 20 percent Latino.

    “We’ve learned the hard way that if you can’t communicate, you can’t know what’s going on in the community,” said Captain Paco Balderamma. “If you don’t know what’s going on in the community, crime spreads.”

    Balderamma is the commander of the Oklahoma City Police Department’s bilingual unit. It has 52 officers certified bilingual. Three speak Vietnamese, four are certified in American Sign Language and the other 45 speak Spanish.

    “We used to just say, ‘Hey, who speaks Spanish,’ and hope someone would raise their hand and help,” said Balderamma. “Now we have a dedicated unit with teams of officers that are always on call.”

    The department recently created a bilingual investigative unit as well. When an investigation involves victims or witnesses who speak Spanish, it’s given to the three-officer team from the beginning.

    “It takes three times as long to use an interpreter, and you might lose something in the translation,” said Balderamma. “If they can work the case beginning to end, it saves time and is easier for the victim and people involved.”

    Through the bilingual patrol and investigative units, the Oklahoma City police department is committed to reaching the Spanish-speaking community. But how do they attract enough bilingual candidates to make these efforts possible?

    Money.

    Officers take a language proficiency test and get incentive pay based on their level of fluency. It’s similar to education incentive pay that many police departments offer, with bonuses given for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

    The extra pay is significant: $100 a pay period, or $2600 a year, for advanced Spanish fluency. Balderamma says his Spanish bonus is larger than his master’s degree bonus.

    For native Spanish speakers deciding between departments or jobs, that extra pay can create an incentive to come work for Oklahoma City.

    Creating Spanish-speaking officers

    For many years, Lexington, Kentucky used a different model for increasing connection with the Latino community. Lexington, famous for horse racing, bluegrass music and bourbon, didn’t have much need for bilingual officers before the 2000s.

    But as the Latino population began to grow, the police department created a Spanish language training program to get officers up to speed.

    From 2000 to 2008, 20 officers a year would be enrolled in two semesters of college Spanish classes. Five of those officers would get to participate in a month-long “immersion” program in Morelia, Mexico.

    The officers would improve their Spanish, shadow police officers in Mexico and learn about a community that many Lexington residents had immigrated from.

    “It was a way to help officers communicate with the community,” said Brenna Angel, public information officer at the Lexington Police Department. “Some of the officers had a little bit of Spanish, but it was designed for those who didn’t speak the language. Some of our bilingual officers today are graduates of that program.”

    The program was suspended in 2008 due to budget cuts. The program itself was expensive ($15,000 per officer), and it was also hard for the department to send five officers away for a month at a time.

    “Even the Spanish classes, to take 20 patrol officers out of the rotation for three hours a day, twice a week, that’s a good chunk of their shift,” said Angel.

    After the program helped grow the number of bilingual officers to a high of 30, that number has remained stagnant since 2012 — even as the department has grown in size.

    But now that the economy has leveled out, there’s consideration of a similar program, or other efforts to increase Spanish-speakers.

    Pennsylvania

    Both Lexington and Oklahoma City managed to reach the Latino population by putting significant funding behind the efforts. That may not be an option for many Pennsylvania cities right now.

    But that may change when the books are balanced, or an opportunity for state or federal assistance comes around.

    “It’s a matter of resources, like everything,” said Balderamma. “Our police department decided to make this a priority, to hire more bilingual officers, and find ways to attract those candidates.”

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