Police, courts reaching out to aid Hispanics in communication|[2/6/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2006

Learning a foreign language is often a simple aspira tion, but for Warren County Circuit Court Judge Frank Vollor, it’s a necessity.

&#8220It’s a new world – it’s got to be done,” he said. &#8220You do what you’ve got to do.”

In the last few years, Vollor has seen an increase in the number of Hispanics in his courtroom and, because many do not speak English, he’s decided to take up Spanish to cut through the language barrier. Through St. Paul Catholic Church, he is learning key phrases he uses daily.

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&#8220Do you have a lawyer?” and &#8220Do you understand your rights?” are just a couple of the typical phrases Vollor might use.

While interpreters are available, Vollor said the time it takes to request and get one isn’t always worth the wait.

&#8220From the get-go, I want to be able to communicate with them,” he said.

Vollor said he doesn’t know of any Spanish-speaking lawyers in Warren County. In the event that a victim or defendant needs a lawyer, he said he will place an interpreter alongside a lawyer.

&#8220If they have other legal problems, I don’t know what they do,” he said.

Vollor has joined the recently developed Hispanic Task Force to further investigate some of these issues and, hopefully, provide some answers.

&#8220I hope (the task force) will bring attention to the issues,” he said. &#8220Maybe this will pave the way.”

The language barrier is not the only problem for law enforcement and the courts.

Vollor said Hispanics often have a misconception of the legal system in this country.

&#8220A lot of times if they’re victims, they won’t come forward,” he said.

Marie Thompson, a Vicksburg woman of Hispanic heritage and an advocate for the task force, said state officials are often corrupt in many Spanish-speaking countries.

&#8220They need to know the police officers’ duty is to protect and serve, not to protect and embezzle,” she said.

Lt. Davey Barnette with the Vicksburg Police Department and a member of the task force said that by coming together with various members of the community, he is able to see what problems need to be addressed by police.

He said the department wants to reach out to the Hispanic community, and he and other officers are aware of the fear that exists among many Hispanic residents.

Having a basic understanding of their language is one way officers can break the language barrier, he said. Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said some of his deputies have taken a course called Survival Spanish, which is taught at several of the state academies.

&#8220I actually don’t have anybody on staff that is fluently bilingual. I do have several officers that do speak Spanish well enough to have minimal communication with a vicitm or a suspect,” he said.

The city’s police also provides officers with an opportunity to learn the basics of the language. They believe if more officers bridge the gap, it may help dispel fears for Hispanics who worry about being returned to their homelands.

&#8220The police department wants these people to understand that we’re not the bad guys,” Barnette said. &#8220We, as a police department, don’t care if they’re illegal. The first thing we want to do is to help them. We want to take the problem out of the equation. If they’re illegal, that’s handled at a different level.”

Providing basic rights is also what Vollor hopes to accomplish through learning the language and educating the community.

&#8220They need equal access to all that we have,” Vollor said. &#8220They can’t access it without communication.”

Barnette said providing signs and cards in English and Spanish is one way the police department is trying to break the barrier.

&#8220We’re trying everything we can,” he said. &#8220We’re making a genuine effort.”

Barnette also supports the idea of creating an adult learning center that is &#8220an informational center where people can come and we can have classes on things that are new to people coming here.”

He said he’d like to see classes on the laws and reading programs.

&#8220It would benefit our community both ways,” by helping the new residents as well as the law enforcement officials, Barnette said.

Vollor said everyone in the community should do his or her part to provide for the Hispanics.

&#8220We’ve just got to adapt, particularly the court system,” he said. &#8220We’re in the business of people’s rights. We have to make sure everything is done fairly and honestly.”