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Back to Archives | Back to March 2011 Contents 

Developing a Multifaceted Approach to Hispanic Outreach

By Mark Sherwood, Sergeant, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Department

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Images courtesy of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Department

mmigration is a crucial topic in law enforcement today. Much discussion has occurred in the media regarding applicable laws and law enforcement’s involvement in immigration enforcement. This article will address immigrant issues from a different point of view—a point of view that puts the immigration enforcement issue itself aside to focus on the people.

Many law enforcement departments and agencies across this nation describe their general duties as “to protect and to serve.” If law enforcement agencies truly strive to protect and serve, the goal must be to look for ways to improve and economize police’s protection and service to the communities in which they function. Law enforcement officers are tasked with enforcing law and defending the defenseless regardless of race, sex, cultural background, and nationality. With that said, it is a fairly agreed upon philosophy that the best way to increase law enforcement members’ ability to perform these duties effectively is to seek and obtain the cooperation of those they serve. Ultimately, cooperation is built upon mutual trust and understanding.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city of more than 400,000 people, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people with limited English proficiency. This group is defined as those individuals whose primary language is not English and who have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English. In Tulsa, the vast majority of these persons are Spanish speakers, primarily with a Mexican background. The census from the year 2000 showed a Hispanic population of 7.2 percent. This translates to roughly 28,200 people.1 As recently as 2010, Hispanic community leaders in Tulsa estimate that the population may be as high as 40,000. It is unknown how many from this group are classified as limited English proficient, but a substantial number can be assumed. As Tulsa’s Hispanic population has increased, as is also true for many other cities across the United States, law enforcement in the city has experienced a wide range of problems and issues never before encountered. These issues include, but are not limited to, language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and lack of education. It is not uncommon to hear the dispatcher ask, “Is there a Spanish-speaking officer on the radio?” A typical response can simply be silence. Is increasing the number of Spanish-speaking officers the end-all solution? The Tulsa Police Department (TPD) came to the clear answer of “no.” The solution requires more—much more.

Looking at these new issues, the TPD developed a strategic plan to improve services to individuals with limited English proficiency, under the premise that the department’s general duties are indeed “to protect and to serve” all residents. The multifaceted approach is replicable to other law enforcement agencies with similar issues. It is understood that all facets of the program have a common goal: to increase trust and cooperation with all members of the community. The cost of establishing the program was minimal and required only the redeployment of existing personnel and the formal development of the strategic plan. This program is currently organized and operated by a two-person team: the author and TPD Officer Jesse Guardiola. With the overall plan and mission clearly established, the six separate, but intertwined, facets of the program were defined:

1. Informational gathering. Community surveys were designed to poll the Hispanic community on what its members felt were their greatest needs. The surveys, both in English and in Spanish, were distributed at community meetings and gatherings. Individuals who completed the surveys expressed appreciation that the police department was trying to solicit their opinions and address their needs. Participants were asked to rate (with number one being the most important) their feelings regarding six need areas:

  • More Spanish-speaking officers

  • More officers of Hispanic descent

  • More Spanish-speaking call takers

  • Increased participation in community events

  • Translation of documents/reports/signs to Spanish

  • A system of receiving complaints in Spanish

The survey is offered periodically, and survey data are compiled and analyzed frequently to ensure that programming is meeting current community needs. Thus far, results indicate that participants favor increasing the number of Spanish-speaking officers and increasing the number of officers of Hispanic descent.

2. Education. Departmental education is standardized with annual instruction on immigrant culture, citizenship issues, and survival language skills. Immigrant culture issues are discussed openly in trainings led by Hispanic community volunteers. Citizenship issues are discussed by local immigration attorneys. To address language skills, all new officers in the academy learn a new Spanish language survival phrase each week in a program called 26 Phrases in 26 Weeks. This program and a more advanced language program are offered to all officers. Community education is achieved by conducting local agency procedural seminars and having question-and-answer sessions at community gatherings.

3. Police-Hispanic liaison. Members of the dedicated Hispanic relations unit hold membership on numerous committees including the Mayor’s Hispanic Affairs Commission, the Tulsa Area Hispanic Resource Center, and school advisory boards, among others. Members also attend church gatherings, community fairs, and parent-teacher meetings.

4. Media relations. Weekly broadcasts are generated on local Hispanic television (Teletul) and local radio (101.5 FM). These broadcasts focus on crime prevention tips, public service announcements, and local crime concerns overviews. All information broadcast is either written by members of the Hispanic relations unit to address community concerns or gleaned from daily uniformed police activity reports. The partnership with media was developed during networking opportunities at the Hispanic community gatherings and meetings. As these partnerships continue to grow, the police department expects to have an increased presence on other media outlets in the coming years.

5. Spanish helpline. Posters containing helpful information are posted in local Hispanic businesses across the community in the areas where the Hispanic population is concentrated. These posters, written in Spanish, contain two phone numbers that are answered by bilingual officers during weekly business hours. The posters clearly indicate these phone lines are provided for nonemergency and informational purposes.

6. Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) Spanish-interpreter ride-along program. This unique program brings officers and community members together both to build trust in the Hispanic community and to bring volunteers with valued language skills into the department. This program provides Spanish-speaking citizens with an opportunity to assist Tulsa police officers in better communicating with the Hispanic community. Bilingual citizens or legal residents who volunteer for this program ride with on-duty officers and make their language skills available as needed. As Tulsa’s Hispanic population continues to grow, it is increasingly helpful for officers to have interpretation assistance readily available. The Spanish-speaking ride-along volunteers often live in the communities they help patrol. Their familiarity with the community and residents often helps to diffuse tension and to prevent misunderstandings.

Spanish-speaking citizens who wish to participate in the program apply by filling out the standard VIPS application, a notarized ride-along Hold Harmless Agreement, and a brief résumé of their qualifications. They are subjected to a thorough background investigation. Applicants are then put through a battery of scenario and role-play interactions and exams to test their English and their Spanish language skills. Volunteers are thoroughly trained on their roles as interpreters and on the importance of word-for-word translation. If all testing phases are completed successfully, the citizen is approved for the program and is allowed unlimited ride-along privileges with the officers—an added incentive, as the general public are allowed only one ride-along per year. The goal is for volunteers and officers to build relationships and eventually work up to regular shifts together. Volunteers also have the option of being on-call to interpret by phone if an officer needs assistance.

The benefits in this program include improved interaction between citizens and officers; more readily available, no-cost interpretation services; and the opportunity for the participating officer to learn or improve language skills and better understand Hispanic culture. A tangential benefit to this program is the ability to support the recruitment of new Spanish-speaking officers of Hispanic descent by introducing them to the law enforcement field. One volunteer, who began in the volunteer program, applied for a sworn officer position, was hired, and is currently in the academy. It is expected that this program will continue to provide beneficial recruitment results.

By taking a proactive and systematic approach to the issue at hand, the TPD has seen substantial gains in law enforcement’s positive influence within the Hispanic community and has enjoyed a healthy start to improving the trust and cooperation of those citizens. The outreach strategy is constantly monitored for efficiency and effectiveness. By employing a similar strategy, law enforcement officers and the communities they serve will benefit from safer streets and improved cooperation. ■


12000 Census of Population and Housing (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, May 2001), 703, table DP-1, Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000, Geographic Area: Tulsa City, Oklahoma, (accessed January 20, 2011).

Please cite as:

Mark Sherwood, "Developing a Multifaceted Approach to Hispanic Outreach," The Police Chief 78 March 2011): 54-55.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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