BOISE – Garden City, Idaho, police Chief Jim Bensley has firsthand experience in interacting with a suspect who speaks little English.
Checking out a report of gunfire when he started with the department, he found a young boy shooting by the river.
“I said ‘policia’ and ‘pistola,’ ” the only Spanish words he knew, Bensley recalled. “And the kid pulled out a gun. Where he was from, you could do that, go down to the river and shoot.”
The situation was resolved peaceably, but that isn’t always the case when English-speaking officers confront a suspect or crime victim who speaks another language.
“All over the country, when you see instances where police are shot, oftentimes there’s a communication barrier,” Jose Alentado told the Idaho Statesman in an article published Saturday.
Alentado is founder of Partners in Training, a Tucson, Ariz.-based company that provides Spanish-language training to law enforcement and emergency personnel. He recently taught survival Spanish to 90 Idaho police officers from 13 agencies at the POST Academy in Meridian.
In Garden City an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent of the population speaks Spanish, so attendance at the training was mandatory for his officers, Bensley said.
“We’re going to calls, and we’re unable to effectively communicate with a segment of our population,” he said.
The department received a $12,000 Department of Justice grant last summer for the Spanish-language training.
Survival Spanish is intended to give officers enough vocabulary to control a situation and includes numbers and the alphabet and phrases to use during a traffic stop or an arrest.
Nampa, Idaho, police Chief Bill Augsburger said his department has about 10 bilingual officers.
“It’s always nice to have more Spanish-speaking officers,” Augsburger said. “Any time you have a language barrier, it’s a hindrance to public safety.”
Nampa police officers who are bilingual are paid an extra 2 percent, he said.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has about a dozen Spanish speakers at the jail, and at least one works on every shift.
Boise police Officer John Lau speaks Spanish and is often called on to translate for other officers, in addition to his patrol work.
“I think it’s so important for the Spanish-speaking community here,” Lau said. “Whether they know what’s going on when there isn’t someone who speaks Spanish … I don’t know.”