In pursuit of common ground
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 20, 2006

Phoenix police force's efforts to recruit Spanish speakers hits roadblock with national competition for qualified applicants

Mel MelÚndez
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, gallbladder and part of his liver.

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, including today at 3 p.m. at 135 N. Second Ave. Walk-ins are welcome.

"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.

"They've helped me understand the laws here," he said. "I appreciate that because I don't want to cause any trouble to anybody."

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.

"This is a tough job where you can get spat at, assaulted and shot at," he said. "So finding people willing to put up with that isn't always easy."

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.

"It's very competitive, because if you're a highly qualified minority candidate who's fluent in English and Spanish, you're in demand pretty much everywhere," he said.

Lopez hopes that Phoenix's $39,332 starting salary, a competitive benefits package that can add another $7,000 annually for Spanish speakers and those seeking more training, and Phoenix's median home prices below $260,000 will attract candidates.

Still, Lopez said, he fears many of the nearly 500 jobs Phoenix police will need to fill within the next two years - because of growth and natural attrition - will go to non-minorities. Most of the recent out-of-state hires have been strong candidates from the Midwest, few of them minorities.

"We're struggling because many of our bilingual candidates are English language learners that don't do as well on our civil service exam," he said.
"And those jobs have to be filled. We can't keep them open because then it becomes a safety issue."

Vineyard Park resident Kurt Von Behrmann said he believes the Police Department, which now has 41 vacancies, is "seriously understaffed."

"While having more Spanish speakers makes sense, I want them to fill those jobs," said Behrmann, an artist. "Beat officers help discourage crime, so I say bring them on."