A Slidell, La., police officer went to a hotel to investigate a series of 911 calls in which the caller kept hanging up without saying a word, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It turned out that the men were migrant workers from Guatemala who were trying to call home using a calling card that included the digits 911. Before Katrina, “we had a small Hispanic population that was pretty much bilingual, but now we have a lot of people who only speak Spanish,” said Slidell Police Chief Freddy Drennan. Law enforcement agencies throughout the New Orleans area and across the Gulf South are facing a language barrier formed by the post-Katrina demographic shift.
Many agencies are sending officers to take crash courses in Spanish, while others are leaning on volunteers or officers who already speak the language. The 70-officer Slidell Police Department, which has a reserve officer who speaks Spanish, recently tried to enroll four full-time officers in a three-day Spanish class in Gulfport, Ms., but the class was already filled. The Regional Counterdrug Training Academy in Meridian, Ms., has turned away scores of police officers seeking to enroll in an introductory Spanish course. The four-day “Survival Spanish” course focuses on key words and phrases that officers can use during traffic stops. “We know you’re not going to leave here fluent in Spanish, so we stick to basic commands like ‘stop,’ ‘turn around’ and ‘show me your hands,’ ” said one official. He said officers also learn to recognize certain “danger words” so they can tell whether a driver they’re questioning starts speaking in Spanish to a passenger about a hidden gun or knife.