Talking the talk
January 14, 2007
Kristen Manns colleagues call her for help at all hours of the day and night.But the calls from the Placer County Sheriffs Department arent seeking Mann for her sharp detective skills or keen intuition. The requests are for what has become a much more essential need on the North Shore the ability to communicate in Spanish. Mann, a Placer County community services officer, is the only certified bilingual speaker within the North Tahoe office. Although translators are available by telephone, deputies sometimes need Manns translation skills in-person. It is not unusual to get a page for help at 2 a.m., she said.I spend 90 percent of my day in Spanish, Mann said. But it is not only law enforcement. With my Spanish, I am able to assist other agencies to better help the community.Mann, who has been with Placer County for 10 years, said the Latino community has come to trust her through the years and will go to her with problems that extend past her duties as a member of the sheriffs department.Over the years, I have been a counselor, mentor, teacher, pseudo-parent, et cetera, Mann said. Your roles change. You wear many hats. You think outside the box.Arnulfo Arnie Lopez, a Truckee police officer, echoed Manns sentiments. Lopez, who is only one of two bilingual speakers in the Truckee Police Department, said 60 percent of the calls he receives from the Latino community are about civil issues.I take it upon myself, when I have time, to talk to the residents, said Lopez. My job is a lot easier because they trust me.Both Mann and Lopez said their departments hold events for the Spanish-speaking community, which help build rapport.A lot of them are scared to talk to us because they think they dont have rights, Lopez said. In my three-year career I have learned that I am not here to arrest everyone, but to help my community.The California Highway Patrol office in Truckee also has one officer who speaks Spanish, but Public Information Officer Steve Skeen said many newer officers know basic Spanish that can assist them in their jobs.You work through it the best you can, Skeen said. Usually it is not too big of a problem speaking with Spanish-speakers.Skeen noted that many from the Latino community know enough English to communicate and that many times their children can speak fluently. He said finding people who speak Spanish is not as much of a problem as finding officers who can speak other languages. The CHP comes in contact with a lot of out-of-area truck drivers who speak only Russian, Skeen said. Only one CHP officer in Truckee speaks Russian, he said.Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner said his deputies also come in contact with many Russian speakers in the western part of the county. He said overcoming the language barrier is an issue for the department, which does not have a single sworn deputy in the entire county who can speak another language. However, two dispatchers in Auburn are bilingual in Spanish, as are three in jail records in Auburn. And then there is Mann. Languages are tough, Bonner said. In a complex organization, we have to have a Plan B.Bonner said it is difficult to find Spanish-speaking officers, though many can speak basic Spanish. The county and state tests are difficult to pass, said all who were interviewed for this article, and even native Spanish-speakers have failed the tests.All the agencies offer a stipend for those who do pass the language test, and many are looking for ways to increase the number of bilingual employees in their departments.Skeen said the CHP Academy offers a two-week Spanish course so officers can learn basic Spanish. Placer County Lt. John Savage said his department would fast track any potential bilingual employees who might apply.In police work, where clear communication with the community is essential, language skills are coveted now more than ever, Bonner said.A big part of the deputy sheriffs job is interacting with the people. Our goal is to be there for all the people in need, Bonner said. The ability to speak the language builds trust. If I would give advice to a young person today, I would say learn a language. I wish I did.
# of officers/deputies# who are certified bilingualTruckee 25 2Placer County 25 1California Highway Patrol 22 1