NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Jose Bercian-Ramos was clutching his back trying to stop the bleeding from a stab wound in April 2013 after an attack in New Bedford’s South End.
Crying and scared, the man, only 10 years removed from leaving his native Guatemala, saw his life flash before his eyes. He feared he was going to die and never see his family again, he told The Standard-Times recently through an interpreter at the Community Economic Development Center.
The now 57-year-old man does not speak English and could not explain to police what happened to him. Fortunately, a good Samaritan who spoke Spanish called an ambulance. She later provided the officer with information that helped identity and arrest the suspect, too.
The suspect pleaded guilty in January 2015 to charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and larceny from a building and received 3 to 5 1/2 years in prison.
The experience of Bercian-Ramos and other Spanish-only speaking residents in New Bedford is not uncommon.
Roberto Osorio, who has owned Quichelenses Market on North Front Street since April 2010, said he has called police regarding robberies, thefts and vandalism at his business, and has run into a language problem several times because he speaks little English.
Osorio, a 43-year-old native of Guatemala, has a work permit and understands he has to learn more English because he runs a business. However, he said he wishes there were more Spanish-speaking officers and dispatchers in the New Bedford Police Department so Spanish-only speaking people could be understood better.
“It would really be helpful because people would be able to communicate clearly and be comfortable the dispatchers understands them,” Osorio said through an interpreter.
Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, said the language problem with police surfaces in so many ways — muggings, motor vehicle stops, accidents, police investigations, prosecutions.
There have been incidents where Spanish-only speaking people cannot explain their side of an accident; they have difficulty scheduling a follow-up interview with a detective; and there have been even instances where the victim, and not the perpetrator, has been charged because of an inability to communicate with the police.
“Language access is such a big problem,” she said. “It’s at all levels that the communication can break down. It can be difficult at all different stages. Those are the kinds of things we come across.”
“If you can’t talk to each other, there’s no way of telling who’s good, who’s bad, who’s telling the truth and who’s not,” said Miriam Watkins, program coordinator at the CEDC.
The center acts as a liason between Spanish speakers and the police department. “Overall, in a perfect world, there would be enough (Spanish-speaking officers) to be a resource for people who speak Spanish,” Williams said.
According to information provided by Frances Alonzo, a Spanish public affairs specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, 19 percent of New Bedford’s estimated population of 94,988 in 2016 or 18,048 people are of Hispanic or Latino origin.
Williams said the problem is compounded because of the change in the Trump administration’s attitude toward immigration, causing a fear of deportations for non-criminal offenses. “Reaching out to police is a lot harder because of the current administration,” she said. “It’s a really tough time right now because people are afraid. The deportations are very impactful. People are leaving their families behind.”
The lack of a Spanish newspaper or radio station in New Bedford — providing an ability to speak directly with Spanish-only speaking people — makes it hard to combat those fears, she said.
The language barriers would be reduced “without a doubt,” if there were more Spanish-speaking officers in New Bedford, she said.
Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, said the New Bedford Police Department should reflect the immigration population they serve — Portuguese, Spanish, and Creole to better assist more Cape Verden residents.
People are more comfortable and will provide more information if they can speak to an officer in their native language, she said. She hears of problems with accuracy that come up in some police reports and others that do not have all the information because the complainant could not make themselves understood.
“I think it is extremely important to have officers who speak other languages and basically reflect the immigrant population,” she said.
Both Arthur J. Kelly III, a former New Bedford police chief and Timothy M. Lee, a former Dartmouth police chief, said ideally a police department reflects the community.
“You want to reflect the society you serve,” Kelly said, now an international police consultant on threat risk and vulnerability assessment.
“You want the department to reflect the makeup of the community. Portuguese-speaking officers in New Bedford and Fall River are just as valuable,” Lee said.
Rene Moreno, a former interpreter in the district and superior courts in Massachusetts, and now an interpreter in the Rhode Island Federal Court, acknowledged there is “a big need” for more Spanish-speaking officers in New Bedford, as well as programs for Spanish-speaking people to learn English. “It is a big need for more programs to teach English as a second language,” he said.
The command staff of the New Bedford police department is aware of the breakdown in communication.
“The Police Department and the chief have been trying to improve the community policing strategies and that’s a welcome change, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Williams said.
For example, muggings of Central American immigrants continue in the North End, she said.
Lt. Nathaniel Rodriguez, the NBPD’s newest public information officer, speaks Spanish and has been coming to the center for the past two years to review police reports with many people who cannot speak English. He goes over reports with the victims, explains things to them, tracks down reports for them and talks about personal steps they can take to reduce the possibility they will become a victim of a crime.
Rodriguez, 41, grew up in a household where Spanish was a second language and it was spoken very often. “It’s very important to speak Spanish. I think the Latino culture will continue to grow in the city,” he said.
Rodriguez said his being at the center gives people who can’t speak English a direct line to the Police Department. “We’re here to protect them like everyone else,” he said. “My Spanish isn’t perfect, but I can understand what they say and they can understand what I say.”
He speaks with them about reporting crimes when they are victimized and suspicious activity when they see it as well as the importance of arranging for direct deposit of their pay checks so they will not be as susceptible to muggings.
Julio Rivera works the desk at the South End police station and said his ability to speak Spanish is an asset.
Spanish-speaking people seek him out. The department will transfer calls to him when there is a need for an interpreter. “It’s easy for them. I can speak the language. It’s advantageous,” he said, adding his ability also helps other officers who don’t speak Spanish.
He estimated he handles a call for service or a question from a Spanish-only speaking resident “once or twice a day.” He also believes an ability to speak Spanish and the knowledge of what questions enables him to obtain additional information. “They probably open up to me a lot more,” he said.
He also finds people are appreciative when they can speak with an officer in their native language. “They thank me over and over again,” he said.
Police Chief Joseph C. Cordeiro said he is aware the department needs more Spanish-speaking officers and is working on it.
He has 21 Spanish-speaking officers out of 255 sworn officers, spread across the department. In addition, there are two additional officers currently in the police academy as well as five police cadets and two dispatchers and other civilian employees who speak Spanish.
Spanish-speaking officers are on every shift in the Patrol Division and in every rank with exception of captain, he said. They are in the department’s narcotics unit (Organized Crime Intelligence Bureau), the Gang Unit, detectives in the Major Crimes Division and the court liaison.
“We’re working to get that (number of Spanish-speaking officers) higher,” he said. “We need to adapt to our community needs. To serve the community appropriately, we have to continually change to reflect the community’s needs. We started last year working on it and we’re working on it aggressively right now.”
The department engaged in “a very aggressive campaign” to recruit more Spanish-speaking candidates for last year’s Civil Service police exam, which is given every other year, according to Cordeiro. Department members also spoke with students in the Legal and Protection Program at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School and UMass Dartmouth about taking the test. They worked with the Massachusetts Latino Police Association, Spanish media and even Spanish faith-based programs to get the word out.
However, the Civil Service requirement that a police officer live in New Bedford for a year before they take the exam represents an obstacle, he said. “That’s where the residency requirement really hurts.”
If the city’s residency requirement was eliminated, it would open up the pool of candidates substantially, he said. A recruit must be 21 to be a police officer in New Bedford.
Cordeiro said his long-term solution to hiring more Spanish-speaking officers is to attract more potential candidates through the department’s police cadet program, which is open to New Bedford residents, ages 18 to 25. The test is given at police headquarters on Rockdale Avenue. If a candidate has two years of good standing, they receive preference on the Civil Service test, he said.
Every third hire, the department is allowed to take a cadet who takes the test over someone who scores higher, he said. The next Civil Service test will be given in 2019.
“It’s really our cadet program that will ensure us more Spanish-speaking officers,” he said. “It’s the best way to hire people with the ability to speak the language.
“I don’t think we’re in bad shape. Every shift is covered, every specialized unit. I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Cordeiro said. “You have to think about retention to maintain and expand those numbers.”
Hank Turgeon, president of the New Bedford Police Union, said more Spanish-speaking officers are needed in the department and he believes current officers can be taught to learn Spanish. “We’re such a diverse community. We need translators on a daily basis,” he said, explaining there are times when Spanish-speaking officers are on their days off.
“Every day there are calls out there, and not just for Spanish,” he said.
He supports the securing of grants for the department to teach officers and purchasing of Spanish-speaking programs officers could download from the NBPD’s website, Turgeon said. “We all can benefit if we can speak Spanish.”
Alfredo Parrilla, a 22-year-old New Bedford man, has been a dispatcher in the New Bedford Police Department for about a month, after being a police cadet for two years and four months.
Born in Puerto Rico, his first language is Spanish and he plans to take the Civil Service exam to be a New Bedford officer in 2019. “That’s my long-term goal to be a police officer,” he said, explaining he is from a law enforcement family.
His father is a police officer in Puerto Rico, and he also has two uncles who are police officers. One is a lieutenant in Puerto Rico and the other is with the U.S. Marshals Service. “It has always fascinated me. It’s just something I love,” Parrilla said of police work.
He learned to speak English from his mother at age 9 when he lived in New York, Parilla said. He has lived in New Bedford for 10 years now.
The ability to speak Spanish is a huge plus, he said. “It helps you speak with the community more. You can interact with the community more. It makes you more approachable.”
One of Parilla’s most interesting calls was the one he received about a year ago from a woman in Spain, who had been trying to find a family member.
He spoke with her a few times and they didn’t end up finding the family member because she did not know where her relative lived. She spoke in “a different accent” that he was not used to hearing, but they were able to understand each other.
It was also flattering to him that she remembered his name and requested him when she called. “That was a shocker to me,” Parrilla said.
Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com