Police officers in Jackson, Mississippi are not too happy about a new requirement that they learn Spanish to be able to communicate with immigrants whose English has limitations.
Jackson Police Department Police Chief Lee Vance, explained that “the purpose of this program is for our officers to learn basic commands. We’re not looking to make anybody fluent.”
We asked for some examples, and the department representative told us the sort of things you might pick up in the first week of high school Spanish class. Still, the Jackson cops are not exactly thrilled.
Vance said that this is all a part of a pre-scheduled Jackson Police Department’s in-service training program. The classes are not just about learning the amount of Spanish you might learn for a weekend visit to Tijuana, it’s also about educating officers in topics related to Constitutional law, as well as policing policies which department representatives indicated needed some refreshing.
Let’s put it in perspective: the Spanish class is two hours long. But even learning the sort of basic phrases that could be covered in a two hour class is too much for some officers who seem to forget that they are allegedly “community servants.” Communicating effectively with all members of the community is part of the job description. That means being aware of the community’s changing demographics and adjusting police training accordingly.
“The program is designed for people who have no knowledge of the Spanish language,” Dr. Brian Phillips, one of the professors teaching the class said. He says that this sort of basic training in foreign languages is important to make sure people understand police commands and – vice versa – so that the police understand people they encounter. This, he explains, will ultimately reduce escalations of force and violent police interactions where an innocent citizen might be brutalized because of a misunderstanding.
“Anytime you have a life-threatening situation, you could be causing problems for that person who does not understand the system when there is a language barrier,” Phillips said.
In the City of Jackson, the state’s capital, about 2% of the 200,000 population are Latino – mostly immigrants drawn to work in chicken processing plants – according to U.S. Census data.
The classes are being paid for by the group Bilingual Works, according to Enrique Diaz, the program’s President.
“If there is an emergency and someone is trying to get help – it could be a life or death situation,” Diaz explained. “If there is a language barrier, that person could die.”
But some critics do not fully agree with Jackson Police Department’s decision to have all their officers learn Spanish.
“We should be encouraging legal immigrants to become citizens learning English,” said Bob Dane, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He said that many police officers quietly agree with him. “It is a disincentive for immigrants to learn English when we fully accommodate their every need and the language of their choice.”
But Marco Lopez, the owner of Taqueria La Guadalupe restaurant in Jackson, said that “it’s been pretty bad” for Latino immigrants, regardless of whether they are documented, undocumented or in the process of obtaining citizenship. Police interactions often turn violent just due to someone trying to explain themselves in poor English or not understanding police commands.
Lopez added that, “sometimes it looks like police are not fair, but it’s just because they don’t understand what happened.”
“There’s been a major problem throughout the state,” Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler explained. “Latino immigrants have been reluctant to call law enforcement,” he added.
“I’ve been here [in Mississippi] since 2005 and I can see there is a lot of miscommunication,” Karla Vazquez, a legal assistant and interpreter for Elmore and Peterson, a local law firm in Jackson, Mississipp, who grew up in Mexico said. “I see it with police officers and I see it in court.”
(Article by Reagan Ali)