Accessibility links

Breaking News

Cops Learn 57 Spanish Words - 2003-02-01

The massive wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the United States is creating a language barrier for police officers that can be more than inconvenient, it can be deadly.

One of the most hazardous duties for a police officer is a felony car stop: stopping a vehicle to arrest someone known to be dangerous. So dangerous, the officers yell commands over a loudspeaker from behind the cover of their police cars, like they're doing in this practice exercise in the Colorado Mountain College Police Academy parking lot.

"It can be any kind of danger from the most simple that someone is known to be very angry and resist arrest of an officer or carries some kind of weapon, or all the way for someone who is wanted for homicide," says Officer Marie Munday. She has plenty of experience in dealing with difficult suspects, but her primary assignment is to serve as a liaison between the Latino community around Aspen and the local police force. After her workday is over, she continues efforts to bridge that gap by teaching non-Spanish-speaking cops 57 words in Spanish. Words like 'hands up, don't move', the vocabulary they need to know to arrest someone who doesn't understand English.

"When I train in Spanish we use much simpler commands than we do in English," she says. "We use a whole lot more when it's our own language. So what we try to do is give people very short, simple, basic commands. Like, 'Stop. Police. You are under arrest.'"

In the classroom Deputy Munday looks more like an aerobics instructor than a teacher. She moves the desks against the wall and stands in the center of the circle, acting out everything she says. If she says 'get down!' she falls on the floor. If she says 'drop keys,' she drops some keys. Her students follow her commands, too, learning the new terms by hearing and saying them, seeing what they mean and doing the actions themselves.

Marie Munday has been conducting workshops like this for five years, all over the country, and her graduates have used their new language skills for more than just car stops.

"There had been a knife assault by a Hispanic person and he had run away, " says Aspen Police officer Ian MacAyeal, who found his lessons came in handy during a more routine arrest. "I had driven by one of those Porta-Potties. It was about 5:30 and it was snowing. There was nobody on the construction site where they set these things up and I saw that the latch had been closed. We opened the latch. We knocked on it. The guy came out. We determined he was a suspect. I was nervous. He was nervous. My partner was nervous. We started yelling commands to "Get down. Get down on the ground. Get down on the ground," and it occurred to me that he had no idea what we were saying because he just wasn't following our commands. He didn't understand us. Then I remembered "get down on the ground" was "acuastése boca abojo," and as soon as I said that, he went right down to the ground. He wanted to follow our commands. He just didn't understand what we were saying."

Colorado State Trooper Eric Miller found himself in an even more dangerous situation. He was alone on patrol one night when he stopped a car for a traffic violation. He didn't know that the car was stolen and the two men inside were wanted. He didn't even know there were two men inside, until the driver got out and walked to the middle of the road and a second man got out and started walking around the other side of the car. "What they were trying to do was find out if there was anybody else in my patrol car or if I was alone," he says. "Due to the bright lights I had on they couldn't see. It was one of the reasons they went out wide. I feel had Marie not taught me the Spanish to make them get back in the car I'd just have been standing there stupid not knowing what to do thinking they just didn't understand me. Since I took Marie's class and I knew I was confident in my Spanish, as to what I wanted them to do and they weren't doing it, I knew they were trying to do something against me."

He thinks they probably would have tried to kill him.

The phrases aren't grammatically correct, and sometimes they're not very polite. But cops are able to remember them, and they say the knowledge has saved their lives and those of the people they're arresting on many occasions.

Officer Ian MacAyeal says lots of cops in lots of countries could benefit from similar training. "I know if I was in a foreign country and the cops started barking orders at me in Spanish and then all of a sudden some English was spoken, it would make me feel a lot better," he says.

About 600 officers from police departments all across the United States have taken the Spanish workshop since Deputy Munday began offering it in 1997.

She says her students learn more than just 57 words in the three-day class. She also teaches compassion. "I teach a whole segment on immigration. And immigration is real important for officers to understand why people come here, where they come from, and their motivation. It's mostly economic. People who are earning three dollars a day and not being able to support their families have a lot of reasons for coming up here," she says. "And we invite them and it goes on and on. It's about a two-hour segment and we get a lot of participation from the officers. And I also see a huge paradigm shift when the officers see what people are going through in their countries and why they come. And when I ask them, 'Who would go to another country in order to feed their families?' after seeing all these examples, and all of them raise their hands."

The program is so successful, Marie Munday has squeezed additional words and phrases into the 3 day workshop. They include question phrases like, "May I see your license?" and "Do you have insurance?" that officers can use on the job every day. She's also added longer workshops to teach questions that can be used to interview Spanish-speaking crime suspects and witnesses.