Ideas Worth Stealing: Recruiting Bilingual Police Officers

Feb 15, 2016


The Lexington Police Department swearing in new officers in July 2014.
Credit Josh James / WUKY

A few weeks ago, we published a story about  Pennsylvania cities trying to recruit bilingual police officers. 

Although the Latino population is growing quickly in many cities, making up 40 to 60 percent of the population in some cases, police departments trying to hire Spanish-speaking officers are facing challenges. 

With tight budgets, strict state laws and a shrinking pool of qualified applicants, it's going to take creativity to reach the numbers they want to see.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state facing these challenges. There are lessons to be learned from other cities around the country that have found ways to recruit and develop bilingual officers.

Finding Spanish-speaking officers

The Oklahoma City Police Department faces significant challenges on a state level. The state passed an English-only ordinance in 2010, prohibiting translation of state forms, documents and signs into other languages. The state was 8.85 percent Latino at the time.

But Oklahoma City is nearly 20 percent Latino.

"We've learned the hard way that if you can't communicate, you can't know what's going on in the community," said Captain Paco Balderamma. "If you don't know what's going on in the community, crime spreads."

Balderamma is the commander of the Oklahoma City Police Department's bilingual unit. It has 52 officers certified bilingual. Three speak Vietnamese, four are certified in American Sign Language and the other 45 speak Spanish.

"We used to just say, 'Hey, who speaks Spanish,' and hope someone would raise their hand and help," said Balderamma. "Now we have a dedicated unit with teams of officers that are always on call."

Read more of this report on the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads