Multilingual community requires special needs of police, fire

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Police and firefighters in the St. Louis are finding it increasingly challenging to communicate with an influx of immigrants who speak a variety of languages.

Over the past decade, several thousand Bosnians, Vietnamese and Mexican natives have moved into St. Louis neighborhoods, but only a handful of bilingual employees work at police and fire departments in the area, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in its Monday editions.

Only two of the city's 1,450 officers can speak Serbo-Croatian. One is fluent in Vietnamese and one in Lao. Several can speak Spanish. Only one 911 dispatcher is bilingual. The St. Louis County police department also has a handful of bilingual employees, mainly Spanish speakers, but none are 911 dispatchers.

Highly valuable

That makes those who speak multiple languages highly valuable.

After graduating from the St. Louis Police Academy last May, 24-year-old Sanela Konjevic found herself extremely busy. As one of two officers who speak Serbo-Croatian, she was assigned to a precinct with a large number of Bosnian immigrants and served as an interpreter when needed.

Recently, Konjevic's captain restricted her from serving as an interpreter on cases other than her own.

"The boss had to put the clamps down because we could have used her 24 hours a day," said St. Louis police Officer Barry LaLumandier, the department's liaison to new Americans. "We had to slow down and give her an opportunity to be a police officer."

LaLumandier said the department has tried to recruit from the international community, but police officers must be U.S. citizens and it often takes years for an immigrant to gain citizenship.

To get by, police officers may use a flash card booklet that illustrates various types of crimes and accidents. The booklets have been so useful that police in Seattle and Denver have asked for copies, LaLumandier said.

The department also encourages its officers to take foreign language classes by offering to help pay for them, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa said. And a proposal by Board of Alderman President James Shrewsbury would provide incentives to employees who use a foreign language as part of their jobs.

"The St. Louis Police Department is aware and proactively trying to prepare for the continual evolution of a more diverse community here, and it's a challenge," Mokwa said.

"It's not so much that we've encountered problems now, but we can look to the future and know what this community is going to look like, and it's going to be a mosaic of different ethnicities that we need to be prepared for."

Manual assistance

All of the city's Fire Department ambulances carry a manual with simple questions and answers written in more than 20 languages to help assess a patient's symptoms. The manuals went on the ambulances about two years ago in response to the influx of immigrants in the city.

The department has "a number" of bilingual employees but doesn't keep track of how many, said spokeswoman Kim Bacon.

St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments also have access to a phone service that provides interpreters, often within seconds. But dispatchers can also send a police car to the location of a caller who is not understood or says nothing.

"It might not even be a police issue -- they might need the ambulance or the fire department," said Konjevic, who worked as a dispatcher for more than a year before she joined the academy.

"Well, if we can't understand, we're just going to send the police first and then figure out what's going on from there."

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