DETROIT (AP) – When Jorge Casanas called Detroit police to
report a hit-and-run accident, the response he got wasn’t what he

“I dialed 911 to get help for my friend, who was bleeding from
his shoulder, but they said something like ‘no speak Spanish’ and
hung up,” said Casanas, who doesn’t speak English.

“I tried it again, and again the same thing happened, until one
of my friend’s relatives who speaks English got through,” the
60-year-old told the Detroit Free Press for yesterday’s story.

Detroit police officials say they don’t condone that kind of
behavior and would discipline operators who just hang up.

But Casanas’ experience underscores the challenges confronting
both departments and residents as immigrants from Latin America,
Asia and other part of the world arrive in Michigan speaking little
or no English.

Police officials say proficiency in a second language can mean
the difference between life and death, and it’s something they’re
working to promote in their departments.

A U.S. Census Bureau report released this month highlights the
country’s new cultural fabric.

The report says that roughly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. speak a
language other than English at home, a 47 percent increase since

So far, Spanish is the most common foreign language.

But with new arrivals from around the Middle East, Africa and
South Asia, police departments in Michigan are under pressure to
recruit candidates with skills in languages such as Arabic, Hindi
or Urdu.

“The two things we talk about most when hiring at the Sheriff’s
Department are … for officers that speak another language and
candidates that know how to use computers,” said Macomb County
Sheriff Mark Hackel.

“For us, language is becoming as important an issue as

“It is vital that our officers be able to communicate with
residents,” said Lt. Col. Peter Munoz of the Michigan State

In Dearborn, where roughly one-third of the city’s almost
100,000 residents hail from the Middle East, several of the police
department’s 180 officers speak Arabic and Spanish.

It also has police officers who speak Japanese, Polish, Italian
and Maltese.

Detroit police Lt. John Serda, president of the 120-member
Hispanic Police Officers Association of Michigan, said the number
of first-generation Hispanic immigrants arriving in areas patrolled
by officers in the 3rd and 4th precincts has jumped.

Most speak little to no English and Serda says he’s worried the
language barrier may cause additional problems for newcomers.

On April 28, 1993, two Detroit officer shot dead a Cuban
immigrant in southwest Detroit because they thought he was reaching
for a gun.

No weapons were found and the officers were later acquitted of
murder charges.

Many in the Hispanic community suggest the incident could have
been avoided if the officers involved had understood what the man
was telling them in Spanish.

“There is a barrier between officers and citizens,” said Lisa
Alvarado, an officer in Detroit’s 3rd Precinct who said she uses
her Spanish-language skills daily while on patrol.

“A lot of people in the community don’t come to the police for
help because of the language issue,” she added.




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