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Oklahoma City Police Department working to expand Spanish proficiency

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The police department has not been able to recruit all the bilingual officers it needs, so it has embarked on a pilot program to teach officers Spanish through a correspondence course.

Nearly 12 percent of Oklahoma City is now Hispanic and being able to speak Spanish is vital to solving some crimes, police Lt. Robert Mercer said. Only 21 of the city's 1,030 officers speak any Spanish.

Mercer, Lt. David Williams and Officer Bryan Husted are enrolled in the 48-week course, which costs the department $3,300 per officer. Williams listens to a Spanish-language CD during his 35-minute commute to work. Mercer, who knows Spanish, brushes up on his language skills with vocabulary flash cards. Husted keeps a Spanish book handy in his cruiser.

``The police department's job is to arrest and prosecute criminals. We do that by collecting as much information as we can,'' Mercer said. ``Therefore, I feel our job is to become the best information-gatherers we can. And these days, a lot of that information is available in Spanish.''

Mercer doesn't buy the notion that Spanish-speakers living in the United States should learn English or suffer the consequences.

``I don't care if the victim doesn't speak English at all, I so badly want to catch that predator,'' he said. ``And there's no guarantee that the predator won't affect the entire community, so it's the entire community's concern.''

The best way to get Spanish-speaking officers is to hire them, Mercer said. But that has been a slow process. The last police academy began with five Hispanic candidates; four graduated.

``I need 50 _ I need 100 Spanish speakers, and we're not going to get that through the academy,'' Mercer said.

Next the department tried group language classes, but varying work schedules made that a challenge.

``Scheduling for cops was a nightmare. You can't get 30 of us in a room at a time,'' Mercer said.

So in September, the department approved the pilot project using a correspondence course from Bilingual America, a Florida-based company that specializes in training professional adults. The course includes telephone tutoring.
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