Diversity push by police faces recruiting challenge
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 24, 2006

Mel MelÚndez


PHOENIX - It's a dicey situation that no police officer wants to face: An officer orders a suspect to raise his arms, but the Spanish speaker misunderstands and ends up shot by police.

That's exactly what happened in Tucson six years ago, forcing the city to pay $1 million in damages to the man who lost a kidney, gall bladder and part of his liver. The shooting also fueled discord between Tucson police and the city's growing Latino community.

Phoenix police say most urban law enforcement agencies know of the Tucson shooting.

Since then, many of them, including Phoenix, have beefed up recruitment efforts to lure more Spanish-speaking candidates.

Phoenix offers its written police exam twice monthly.

"Being able to speak a suspect's language can mean the difference between life and death," said Phoenix Officer Joe Trujillo, a nine-year veteran working in central Phoenix. "But some of our police squads don't have any Spanish speakers at all. That's a real problem."

Phoenix has nearly 3,000 police officers, but only about 350 are certified in Spanish. Eradicating the shortage is critical because studies show residents mistrust agencies that don't reflect the communities they serve.

For example, a recent survey conducted by Phoenix police showed 60 percent of Spanish speakers wouldn't report crimes because of language barriers.

"We rely on residents' cooperation to solve crimes, and people respond better to officers who look like them and speak the same language," said Phoenix police Lt. Mike Parra, 45."There's just no way around that."

Spanish-speaking officers can improve residents' relations with police, said day laborer Mario Quiroz, referring to patrol officers in the central Phoenix area.

Since 2001, Phoenix has spent more than $900,000 to hire more minority officers, especially Spanish speakers. Last year, it launched an aggressive out-of-state marketing campaign.

But it's an uphill battle, Parra said.

What's more, most Maricopa County law enforcement agencies are experiencing similar shortages of minority applicants in a state that's poised to become 51 percent Latino by 2025. Most of the viable candidates are fought over on a national level, said Sgt. Tony Lopez, who oversees the Phoenix recruitment team.