Multilingual Police Unit Bridges Investigative Gaps

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

It was the kind of case that, in years past, might have flummoxed the Fairfax County police homicide unit: a Korean man found dead and an unidentified Latino suspect on the run.

Annandale in August: A contractor's body was found burned in the woods. The Korean community was upset and demanded answers.

Surveillance cameras showed the victim with a Latino day laborer. Distrust of police runs through both immigrant communities, compounded by the language barrier. And the county's homicide detectives speak only English.

Enter the newly formed police language skills support unit, whose 10 officers include fluent speakers of Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese.

Lt. Gun Lee, a native of South Korea, went to a community meeting of Korean residents to reassure them about the investigation and ask for help.

Officer Paul Marinero, a native of El Salvador, began showing surveillance photos of the suspect to wary day laborers outside a 7-Eleven in Annandale. One man's body language made the officer believe "he was hiding something. He wanted to tell me. I started to build a good rapport with him in Spanish."

Within minutes, the man gave Marinero a name. Police found the suspect that afternoon, and another Spanish-speaking officer questioned him. The suspect was charged with murder that night. The Fairfax homicide lieutenant, Bruce Guth, said his detectives wouldn't have been able to make the break that Marinero did.

Lee was pleased. "Everything just came together," he said. "I thought it was a sweet success."

The language unit was launched in late 2004 as a pilot project to replace the haphazard method of calling officers who may or may not have had the needed language skills. The unit has performed so well that County Executive Anthony H. Griffin cited it in his budget as an example of the police reaching out to a diverse community. Now, police commanders say, it's a permanently funded part of the criminal investigations bureau.

The unit isn't a full-time assignment, though police said there is probably enough work to make it one. The officers keep their normal posts -- Lee is in patrol, Marinero is a school resource officer -- and are available at any time. Each officer gets a $1,300 annual stipend.

The unit's members are not simply interpreters, said Maj. Robert Callahan, head of the criminal investigations bureau. They act on behalf of a detective or officer who needs their skills.

"There's no way you can have rapport with a person when you're talking through a third person," Callahan said. "That's really what we're trying to get at, to train our folks that have language skills to be good listeners, good interviewers, good note-takers -- good detectives."

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