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'Manos arriba!' and other commands in Spanish are rare among police departments

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20: The scene at a shooting where two New York City police officers were killed execution style Saturday afternoon as they sat in their marked police car on a Brooklyn street corner
> on December 20, 2014 in New York City. The suspect, who killed his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier in the day, was apparently motivated by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20: The scene at a shooting where two New York City police officers were killed execution style Saturday afternoon as they sat in their marked police car on a Brooklyn street corner > on December 20, 2014 in New York City. The suspect, who killed his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier in the day, was apparently motivated by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

Three McMinnville police officers faced off with Juventino Bermudez-Arenas as he held the large blade he'd just used to kill a 20-year-old Linfield College student.

Officers pulled their guns. One, who spoke Spanish, reached for her Taser but dropped it and grabbed her pistol as Bermudez-Arenas lowered his head and his hands and appeared to move forward.

Seconds before they fatally shot the 33-year-old Mexican man, police yelled, "Get on the ground," and, "Drop the knife," again and again.

They yelled their commands in English, the dominant language in the U.S. But in the days after the Nov. 15 shooting of Bermudez-Arenas, his family and his employer told detectives he had understood few English words and couldn't speak the language. Rosa Bermudez-Arenas, Juventino's sister, said her brother told her that night he was going to turn himself into police, and she now questions why none of the McMinnville officers used Spanish to direct him.

Police departments in Oregon and nationwide aim to serve residents of all cultures equally by hiring officers who speak Spanish or other languages heavily used in their communities. Police agencies nationwide have worked over the past 20 years to improve how they work with victims and suspects who understand limited English. Departments have taught officers basic language and culture courses, distribute pocket-size phrase books and provide plasticized cards with Miranda rights translated.

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But few have woven bilingual commands into tactical training for encounters such as what the McMinnville officers faced. Thus, phrases such as "drop it," "hands up" or "stop or I'll shoot" often don't come as second nature in both English and Spanish in life-and-death situations.

Some law enforcement officials bristle at the idea that officers fall short if they don't use bilingual commands. They say many incidents - such as the Nov. 15 shooting of Bermuduz-Arenas - happen too quickly and officers must rely on training.

"People don't come with tags around their necks saying `I speak this,' or `I speak that,"' said Capt. Dennis Marks of the McMinnville Police Department, adding that his agency has three bilingual officers who receive a higher, incentive-based pay for the skill.

In the Bermudez-Arenas case, however, McMinnville police before the shooting had released a description of the suspect as Hispanic. According to police reports, one of the officers involved - not the one who spoke Spanish -- had heard the description and had interviewed a witness who confirmed it.

A little more than 11 percent of people who live in Yamhill County said they speak Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census' American Community Survey between 2009 and 2013. In the six counties of the Portland/Vancouver area, that percentage is second only to Washington County, where the figure was 12.3 percent.

Marks said his department has had Spanish language training in the past, some successful and some not. His agency doesn't require officers to know commands in Spanish, he said, but many officers know a few, such as "show your hands" and "don't move."

"As an officer," he said, "I've been in situations where you give (non-English speakers) commands and they respond, whether that's putting their hands up or getting on the ground."

But that's not enough, some law enforcement and researchers say, when it comes to both protecting the public and officers themselves.

"That's a very risky assumption, said Susan Shah, a program director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national justice research and policy organization that works on a range of justice topics, including policing, in partnership with government agencies.

Varying cultural groups have different ways they behave around law enforcement, she said, including how they make eye contact, advance or explain themselves.

"Law enforcement doesn't have the luxury of assuming that everyone is totally healthy and with it," she said, "and understands what is meant by showing a gun or acting something out."

Cadets in the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Academy learn 27 commands in Spanish during their five-month training course. As part of their final exam, cadets must defuse a series of situations, ranging from a missing-child call to a high-risk car stop, using only Spanish commands.

Some law enforcement agencies say it's dangerous to have police who speak only a little Spanish, leaving a suspect or crime victim thinking they're working with a fluent officer. But Officer Jesse Guardiola, who created the program in Tulsa, doesn't agree.

He says his officers learn how to say they only know limited Spanish. But ultimately, he added, the training is intended so officers can do everything possible to achieve a good outcome in the stressful seconds of a potentially life-and-death call.

The practice not only protects suspects, he said, but also officers themselves.

"If it turns into a shooting and you go to court or are being investigated, this protects my officers," Guardiola said (Hear Guardiola talk more about his training program).

"If that person is looking at you and still defying you - even when they hear their own language," he said, "it gives you more back-up."

Guardiola said the New York City Police Department has requested information about his training program, which has achieved the added benefit of helping Tulsa's Spanish speakers have more trust in their local police.

"We have to look at this in a progressive manner," he said. "We have to build relationships with this community so we don't have a situation like Ferguson in the Latino community."

No matter how much training may make sense, such programs require funding, said Eriks Gabliks, director of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.

And that, he points out, remains a significant issue for law enforcement agencies across Oregon, especially those in the state's smallest towns and remote counties.

Or take towns with large numbers of residents who speak different languages, such as Woodburn, home to both large Spanish and Russian communities.

"There's an expectation today that a law enforcement officer is a Swiss Army knife," Gabliks said. "They're supposed to be able to respond to any incident at anytime with all tools available that anybody else has."

That's not realistic, he added, pointing out how some remote rural communities have no local police at all.

"It doesn't mean that our law enforcement wouldn't like to have those tools or that training," he said. "They're just not available to them."

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