Every Wednesday night about 20 police officers from several Twin Cities communities meet up in West St. Paul for Spanish class.
The class isn't the way you may remember it from high school or college; there's no conjugation of verbs or discussions about the rules of grammar. Instead, the cops here are learning Spanish phrases that they hope will allow them to communicate with the Spanish-speaking people they run into while on patrol.
The officers here serve in St. Paul or one of three suburbs -- Inver Grove Heights, Mendota Heights, or West St. Paul. The suburbs are all in Dakota County where the Hispanic population has grown 50 percent in five years. The state demographer's office says in the year 2000, there were about 10,000 Hispanics in the county. By 2005 the number had grown to 15,000.
West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver says he wants his officers to become more familiar with the Spanish language because of the city's changing demographics.
"There's been a real insurgence of Latino people in the West St. Paul area. And more and more frequently we're running into individuals that only speak Spanish. Now it's really easy to say 'everyone should just speak English.' If it was so easy, that would be done. But the fact is we need to conduct business," Shaver says.
And to do that police need to be able to communicate with people.
The Dakota County Technical College course is tailored for police work.
The one thing we don't want to happen is if anyone has a problem, we don't want them to get frustrated because they can't communicate to us what their problem is.Sgt. Mitchell Scott, Mendota Heights
"Our classes are designed to teach them very specific situations that are specially correlated to what they do daily like a traffic stop, or a DUI case or a domestic violence case," according to instructor Harold Torrence.
Torrence says the officers aren't expected to be fluent after the 21 hours of training, but they are expected to have a grasp on some basic communication skills.
West St. Paul Officer Joe Sass says he already knew some Spanish after taking it in college. But he says the strategies for using even basic phrases have helped him on the streets.
"One of the first things we learned -- I think the first night -- was to tell someone who's speaking Spanish to slow down is 'mas despacio.' And I've used that quite a bit in the field already because if you say 'mas despascio,' they realize they're speaking way too fast and they slow down," Sass says.
The class includes role-playing so officers can practice using their new repertoire. In one case, the instructor plays a driver who's stopped by police but has no license and isn't wearing a seat belt.
In addition to learning Spanish phrases to help in their police work, officers also get cultural training that can help them avoid offending someone inadvertently.
Some officers say they were using their new skills after only a few classes. "We had an altercation in the park and it was primarily Spanish-speaking individuals and was able to use terms some terms that we've used to gain control and ask some basic information questions and try to sort through things a little bit. And it did help," reports officer Brian Convery, one of three officers with the Mendota Heights Police Department who are taking the class.
Convery says without the Spanish classes, he would have had to act out his questions with gestures.
The class Convery is attending isn't the first for police officers. It's similar to a class offered to Apple Valley police last year. Apple Valley Sgt. Mitchell Scott says the effort has helped both the police and the Spanish-speaking community.
"This tool is to reach out to the community and offer something to them so they feel more comfortable with us, because the one thing we don't want to happen is if anyone has a problem, we don't want them to get frustrated because they can't communicate to us what their problem is," Scott says.
Apple Valley is now offering is second Spanish class for cops and hopes to offer more in the future.