HERMISTON, Ore. (AP) – As Hermiston's Hispanic community has grown to more than a third of the city's population, police officers who speak Spanish are in high demand.
In recognition of the extra work often required of bilingual officers, the Hermiston City Council approved a contract with the Hermiston Police Association this week that gives a 2 percent raise to employees who are fluent in more than one language.
Police Chief Jason Edmiston said he relies on the skills of his department's five fluent Spanish-speakers "absolutely every day." They're often called away from whatever they're doing to assist another officer, he said, and are sometimes even called for help when they are off duty.
"This is the right thing to do," he said of the raise.
He said the need to spread out bilingual officers' shifts makes it difficult to honor all their scheduling preferences. Other officers are given a three-day crash course in "street survival Spanish," but knowing that "mano" means hand isn't the same as being able to fluently tell a suspect to keep their hands in plain view and then understand their response.
The department pays 25 cents a minute for 911 dispatchers to be able to patch an emergency call through to a translator, but Edmiston said it's too expensive a service to make readily available to all officers in the field.
"Sometimes officers just have to fumble through and figure out what is going on," he said.
Hermiston Police Department's current pay scale for patrol officers runs between $4,100 and $5,300 a month. The 2 percent raise will be given automatically to the five officers currently considered bilingual by the department. Future hires will have to pass an aptitude test.
According to the 2010 Census, 34.9 percent of the 16,745 inhabitants of Hermiston are Hispanic or Latino.
Erica Sandoval, the department's crime prevention officer and one of its bilingual staff, said she was glad to see the language incentive added to the contract.
She said she frequently uses her Spanish to speak to parents of students who are sent her way through the Community Accountability Board. But it's also common for her to be called away from crime prevention work to respond to an accident, help a detective take a report or talk to a walk-in.
She doesn't mind acting as a translator for other officers, she said, but "you can lose something when you're going back and forth."
Sandoval said in her 12 years with the department she has seen a positive change in the relationship Hermiston police have with the Hispanic community, and she believes it's partly due to having more bilingual officers on staff.
"I think it helps tremendously in reaching out to people in the community who haven't always had a voice," she said. "For me I think it creates a connection with the family."
Hermiston's current bilingual officers are also bicultural, and Sandoval said that background creates more cultural understanding and trust when police respond to an incident involving a Latino family.
Sandoval said she's grateful to the association and management for being willing to recognize the value that bilingual officers' language skills add to the department.
"I definitely think this is going in the right direction," she said.