Member Interview: Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Master Sergeant Joanie Rupert, Oklahoma City Police Department Bilingual Coordinator, Oklahoma Lodge #123

How did your Spanish training program come about?

Our Bilingual Unit was formed in 2002, in response to our growing Hispanic population. We have had a pretty significant Hispanic population for some time but in the last 10 years it has increased by almost 100%, which is pretty considerable. I think that is probably one of the reasons why our command and city government decided we needed to do something different. The program we have in place now started in 2007. Police recruits receive 70 hours of Spanish language training in the academy; 70 hours is a pretty good commitment, but it’s worth every minute.

From a personal aspect, we have always had issues trying to communicate with people out in the field who speak little or no English. I have been assisting officers with interpretations since I was hired. The more the Hispanic population has increased, the more issues we have had with the inability to communicate, so I think that is one of the reasons why they made the decision to try to increase the number of hours that we teach our academy recruits.

I know our department is actively recruiting to have our academies mirror the demographics of the city. It is difficult everywhere to hire good applicants who can make it all the way through the system to the end result of being a good field officer.  

Do you have particular recommendations for officers who have been on the department already for some time?

I would love to hear what other people might recommend because I am always looking for other avenues to improve our program. To me, the officers who are already in the field are busy all the time, so it would be easier for them to do it at their own pace. (Editor’s note: For tips and resources, see the “Learning a Foreign Language: What’s In It for You?” article in the February 2014 FOP Journal.)

Do you have any examples where miscommunication was an officer safety issue?

Of miscommunication I do not, but there have been officers that I have trained who were able to communicate. One was a disturbance, and once they arrived, a Hispanic male with a knife did not understand a word they were saying. They were able to communicate with him in Spanish, get him disarmed and get him into custody without any issues. Another incident involved an ADW (assault with a deadly weapon), where the suspect ended up getting in a car and leaving. Another officer stopped the suspect and they realized it was part of the same issue. One of the officers who had received our language training went to where they stopped the car and was able to give commands to get the suspect out of the car in a safe manner. Part of our training is to be able to give commands and get individuals out of the car without having to go up and put hands on them. The officers that are trained, especially the ones who work in a predominantly Hispanic area, use their language skills almost daily: traffic citations, getting information from people, being able to obtain tag numbers, etc. 

So it has been helpful for them in terms of in-the-moment situations — for example, maybe getting somebody’s description, rather than waiting for a translator?

Absolutely. The ones who have been trained — that is what they do. When the officers arrive, they try to obtain as good a description as they can, to be able to put the description out to other officers while they are waiting for either one of our interpreters to get there, or use a language line if a police interpreter is not available. That happens all the time.

So even just the basics can make a difference?

Without a doubt. Just the basics of being able to get a name, date of birth, address, a tag number on a car, or to be able to get a description on somebody; as well as handcuffing commands. If an individual does not understand what the police are saying, that person is obviously not going to do what they are supposed to do. Officers learn to get basic information, be able to handcuff and write somebody a citation, and explain what it’s for. Not in great detail, obviously — I can’t create fluent Spanish speakers out of them in 70 hours — but they do know the basics, which is obviously better than nothing at all.

Can you tell us a little more about the program?  

I start teaching the recruits from week one of the police academy — depending on what other training they have — starting with alphabet, clothing, body parts, etc. I also teach some verb conjugations so they don’t say something wrong, and can understand the difference between when somebody says “I need help” and “They need help,” because it’s a huge difference!

Do you ever encounter objections?

They generally enjoy it; of course, like anything else you are going to get some people who will be resistant but that usually doesn’t last very long. By the time they get through the training they are pretty much convinced that it’s a necessary skill. Once the officers are in the field and return after each phase of training, it is amazing to hear the stories. They come back and say, “Oh, I wanted to tell you we did this and this and this, and I got to use my Spanish almost every day.” And they get excited about it. Sometimes, if they are a little reluctant, it takes some time to understand that it is an officer safety issue and this is a skill which may save their lives at some point in time.

I try to make it fun. We do a lot of hands-on. I could probably teach them a lot more classroom stuff, but to me it’s important for them to be very comfortable doing the things I think are most important: getting information, descriptions, handcuffing and traffic stops, while keeping themselves safe. Officer safety issues are first and foremost for me. We also incorporate our Bilingual Unit into the training. They come in and do practical exercises with the recruits — domestics, mock bar scenes and traffic stops, etc. “Go get information from somebody,” we’ll tell them. Someone will be walking along and they have to tell them, “Take your hands out of your pockets,” and get all their information. They never know when they respond to a “call” whether it is going to be in English or Spanish. We try to make it as close to the field/real-life as we can under the circumstances in a safe environment, so to speak.

How many officers on your department have been trained?

I’ve trained 242 recruits; it will be almost one-third of the department by the time I get through with the class that we are training now. We anticipate graduating 44 officers in this class.

Beyond the officer safety benefits, what are the benefits for the department, and also, what are personal benefits for the officers?

As far as the department and the community, I think it is a huge benefit and an important outreach tool. I try to explain to the officers I train that even if you can’t speak perfectly, the fact that you’re trying to communicate is huge. It makes a very big difference that we are making an effort. As far as the Hispanic community, I think they are very much in support of our language program. It benefits everyone, the more outreach we do; the better it is.

The officers of our Bilingual Unit receive a pay incentive every month, ranging from $50 to $100 per pay period, depending on the level of skill. There are three tiers of pay. We use an oral proficiency interview to rank everybody’s ability, and then it’s broken down by novice, intermediate and advanced. Obviously the better your ability, the better the pay. The pay incentive includes Vietnamese as well as sign language. As of right now, we have 35 bilingual unit members and I am constantly trying to find more, because we can never have enough. It’s good for the department; it’s good for the community. The community sees the department is making an effort to reach out to them to provide them the best service we can.

Where did you acquire your language skills?

I grew up speaking the language. My father worked for the United Nations when I was a child so I spent two years in Colombia, which was my stepmother’s native country, and two years in Argentina. When I hired on 30 years ago, there weren’t a lot of us that spoke Spanish, so it turned out to be a pretty good asset. I was the only female for a quite a long time who could speak Spanish, and I assisted fellow officers as an interpreter. As far as my educational background I have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a Master of Education in Spanish, so it has always been part of my life.

Do other departments contact you regarding setting up their own programs?

I have gotten calls from several departments, asking what we do and how we do what we do. I am happy to share my information. When this program was started in 2007, I reached out to several agencies including LAPD, and they were very helpful in giving me ideas and guidance in how they operated their program; so I’m happy to be a resource when people need help.

Providing service to populations that don’t speak English seems to be a reality of modern policing.

It is reality and it’s huge. That reality is my driving factor. If I can provide officers the language tools to keep them safe, to be able to do their jobs better and keep the community safe at the same time, then my job has been worth it.

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