The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 1st

Chapel Hill Police Work to Serve Hispanics

After March 12, when a federal marshal shot a Hispanic man whom he mistakenly believed to be a wanted criminal, there has been a heightened awareness for the need to break down language barriers, especially those between Spanish- and English- speaking individuals.

But Chapel Hill police maintain that sensitivity training is not something new for the department and that cultural sensitivity has always been considered.

Since 1995, Chapel Hill police officers have been encouraged to attend cultural diversity classes year-round at Wake Technical and Durham Technical community colleges. The classes aim to increase officers' knowledge and understanding of Spanish language and culture. Officers also attend cultural training Spanish classes periodically throughout the year -- one of which is taught by a Chapel Hill officer -- at the N.C. Justice Academy.

Officer Jason McIntyre of the Chapel Hill Training Division said the police department does not require each of its officers to be bilingual but assists in teaching officers some foreign languages, especially Spanish.

McIntyre also said the police department has four Puerto Rican officers who came to the department from the Army and speak Spanish. "The four bilingual officers teach other officers street-level Spanish, such as how to ask for a driver's license or identification," he said.

McIntyre also said police are learning more common words, with the help of the bilingual officers in the department, that might help them understand what a Spanish-speaking person is trying to say.

"When running into cases with Spanish-speaking individuals, most of the time someone in the individual's family speaks English," he said.

If there is no one to translate for a Spanish-speaking individual, McIntyre said the department will call in an interpreter or call on one of the bilingual officers for assistance.

"For long, drawn-out discussions, the police department will get an interpreter from the University, but most of the time the victim has a relative who speaks English and can help translate," he said.

Jim Huegerich, a social worker who is the department's crisis intervention director, said the department also has a contract with a system called Language Line. The system connects callers via telephone to a translator for any language. The line is open at all times and Orange County uses it for all brief conversations.

Huegerich also said the department is in the process of requesting a grant to help officers learn more Spanish. The grant is funded by the Governor's Crime Commission and will help officers who already speak some Spanish improve their knowledge of commonly used legal terms. The grant will also provide programs to teach officers basic skills in Spanish.

Chapel Hill police spokeswoman Jane Cousins said the police department hopes to help officers, even in areas other than Chapel Hill, better communicate with Spanish-speaking individuals. "Chapel Hill police officers helped in making a statewide video training officers to deal with Spanish-speaking people," she said.

Cousins also said in addition to the officer training part of the video, there is a part that is specifically designed for Spanish-speaking people. This part of the video helps Hispanics better understand police officers. The aim of the video is to make confrontation much simpler not only for the officer but also for the victim, Cousins said.

In addition to cultural diversity classes and help from other officers, support from the Chapel Hill community helps make it possible for officers to further their knowledge of the different cultures found in Chapel Hill.

Huegerich said the strong support of the community makes going to classes and learning the Spanish language much easier for the officers. "The strong support around town gives officers the opportunity to attend classes."

The City Editor can be reached

at citydesk@unc.edu.

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