Police Try to Break Language Barrier; Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Hopes to Expand Its International Unit, Translate More of Its Literature

Article excerpt


When 24-year-old Jesus Santos Marcos was gunned down in the Normandy Estates mobile home park in late January, police had trouble getting information from witnesses.

In a Jacksonville neighborhood where about half of the residents speak only Spanish, a reluctance to talk with police slowed the investigation.

In Spanish-speaking clusters of town, it's nothing new.

"It's always an issue in those neighborhoods, especially when there's a murder," said officer Ivan Pena of the Sheriff's Office's International Unit.

With the growing Hispanic population, Sheriff John Rutherford said there's more to be done to build trust in the Spanish-speaking community.

To help solve the problem, Rutherford created in July the International Unit made up of two Spanish-speaking officers - Pena and Dennis Pellot. He said he plans to expand the unit and increase his office's Spanish-language literature.

According to the U.S. Census, Hispanic people make up 5.4 percent of Jacksonville's population, but almost all experts will say the real total is much higher. The number of police calls by non-English speakers has increased from 50 in 1991 to 2,282 in 2005, Rutherford told the Times-Union in August. The Sheriff's Office has at least 30 Spanish-speaking officers out of about 1,700 total officers.

The problem, Pena said, is that the Sheriff's Office can't just hire solely on language skills, and night-time language classes are difficult to attend with officers working so much overtime already. Officers also can forget the Spanish they've learned if they don't use it regularly, he said.

Pena said investigators are often calling Spanish-speaking officers to scenes to translate, but they can't conduct investigations if they aren't a part of the investigating unit.

Many immigrants have even become targets of crime because of their unwillingness to call police, Pena said. He said criminals know that illegal immigrants carry large amounts of money because they're often paid in cash and it's hard to get bank accounts. Police said Santos Marcos was shot and killed Jan. 26 in an apparent robbery.

Even when Spanish-speaking people do try to report a crime, they don't always know who to call, Pena said. Gina Deliz said her friend Rosario Perez, originally from Ecuador, had trouble reporting an abuse to the Sheriff's Office because she didn't speak English. She said the experience was "emotionally draining and exhausting. …


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