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Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Wanted in Wichita: Bilingual police

October 8, 2001

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— A boom in Wichita's non-English-speaking population has the police department actively recruiting bilingual officers.

"It's a big problem when residents feel uneasy about police because they feel they can't communicate," Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said.

Only 17 of the department's 650 officers serve as official translators meaning they've passed language proficiency tests and are summoned to calls involving a language barrier.

Of those, 11 speak Spanish, two Vietnamese, two Arabic, one Laotian and one Cambodian.

The city's Asian population jumped 78 percent to 13,845 between 1990 and 2000. The Hispanic population, including many Spanish-speakers, more than doubled, from about 15,000 to more than 33,000.

One incident involving officer Luis Franco shows why it helps to have officers who can communicate with non-English speakers.

Franco recalled a domestic dispute where he found a middle-aged Hispanic man wouldn't sit still for other officers.

The man spoke no English and aggressively resisted the investigation of the dispute between him and his wife.

Franco immediately told him to calm down and asked what the problem was in Spanish.

The man turned toward Franco and answered quickly. The man said he expected the police to beat him up, then take him downtown.

We don't do that here, Franco explained. Sit down and tell us your side ... and we'll work it out.

The man calmed and agreed. Afterward, he went downtown anyway, but the arrest stayed peaceful.

A handful of officers have sufficient skill in other languages mostly Spanish to get basic information from residents, Stolz said.

Still, police recruiters flock to cultural events, such as a recent cultural night at a Wichita Wranglers game, to set up booths and spread information about joining the force.

The best recruiting tool may be the extra $10 per hour bilingual officers get answering translation calls.

The money was part of a 1999 plan to attract more bilingual officers.

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