On a recent morning, Kelly Martin, an analyst with the Minneapolis Police Department, sat across from Paul Garcia, the Spanish instructor at Language Central, a northeast Minneapolis-based nonprofit, learning how to pronounce Spanish words and organize them into complete sentences.
Martin is taking part in a class created specifically for law enforcement. Known as SPO, or Spanish for Officers, the initiative was created by Language Central to help law enforcement better communicate members the Latino community.
“It’s great that Language Central is offering this class,” said Martin, who has been enrolled in the program since June. “I hope more people take advantage of it.”
The accelerated Spanish program is meant to give police officers and security personnel the skills necessary to give commands, gather information and provide appropriate assistance in Spanish. “I want my students to feel very comfortable understanding and speaking Spanish,” said Garcia. “The focus of this class is to make sure that officers can connect and communicate well with Spanish speakers.”
SPO was born out of casual discussions between Lynn Olson, a retired Anoka County judge and founder of Language Central, and the center’s Spanish-speaking students, many of whom who talked about what they see as a growing chasm between law enforcement officers and Spanish-speakers.
Those conversations added to a series of anecdotes that Olson had already heard from other people: that many members of the Twin Cities Latino community have long been reluctant to report crimes.
“Somebody told me he was getting off the bus when some people roughed him up and took his money and telephone,” Olson said. “I asked him, “Did you call the police?”
“No,” he said to her. “Are you kidding me?”
The reason: Like other minority groups, members of the Latino community — and especially undocumented immigrants — are reluctant to interact with law enforcement.
One small way to address the issue, Olson thought, is to teach law enforcement officers some Spanish, a gesture that might make it more normal for Spanish-speakers to reach out to police departments and talk to officers.
That’s why Olson launched the once-a-week SPO program, which offers two levels of Spanish classes. The first level is an introduction to the language; the second focuses law enforcement terms, basic phrases related to policing as well as listening and speaking skills.
Though the program is still new and Olson is working to recruit students, the Minneapolis Police Department was the first to allow its personnel to participate in the class during regular work shifts (provided an officer has the permission of his or her supervisor). Other agencies that have followed suit include the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office as well as Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Columbia Heights police departments.
And the coming months, Olson said, she hopes to get officers from the Metro Transit Police Department and Minneapolis Park Police Department to participate in the SPO program.
If all goes as planned, Olson said she plans to expand it to Somali, Hmong, Oromo and other languages spoken by immigrant groups in Minnesota.