Spanish Skills Help Officer in Wheaton

Sgt. Eric Stancliff, left, who is studying Spanish, gets help from Andy Ramirez, a bilingual officer whose skills are in constant demand in Wheaton.
Sgt. Eric Stancliff, left, who is studying Spanish, gets help from Andy Ramirez, a bilingual officer whose skills are in constant demand in Wheaton. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

This is one in an occasional series on Montgomery County's six police districts. Today's report looks at crime in the 4th District, which is bordered roughly by Silver Spring to the south, White Oak and Burtonsville to the east, Rockville to the west and Howard County to the north.

As one of only two Spanish-speaking police officers in his squad, Andy Ramirez must translate in a variety of situations in the heavily Latino community of Wheaton: Criminal investigations. Traffic stops. Domestic arguments.

And sometimes, as in a Friday night last month when he listened to a babbling, shirtless man seated on a sidewalk surrounded by police officers, he delivers the kind of dark humor that gets cops of all backgrounds through their shifts.

"He said he wants beer, cocaine and weed," Ramirez told his colleagues. "He said he's been like this since the 10th of May."

All kidding aside, Ramirez's language skills are something the Montgomery County Police Department needs more of. Of the 150 officers, detectives and commanders assigned to the department's 4th District, about 17, or 11 percent, have moderate or better Spanish skills.

The Wheaton-Kensington area has the highest concentration of Hispanic residents of Montgomery's 21 government planning areas. Central Wheaton is at least 34 percent Hispanic, with 22 percent of residents in the area reporting that they speak English less than "very well," according to the Montgomery County Planning Department and the Wheaton Public Safety Audit Task Force. That puts officers who aren't fluent in a bind.

"It's frustrating for the officers. I'm sure it's frustrating for people trying to talk to us," said Sgt. Eric Stancliff, Ramirez's supervisor, who is studying Spanish and gets help from Ramirez at their district headquarters near Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road.

Montgomery police are recruiting Spanish speakers. The department offers up to $4,000 a year extra for such fluency. Fifty-four officers, line supervisors and detectives, about 5 percent of the Montgomery force, are certified to speak and understand Spanish, a department spokesman said.

Language barriers are not the only challenges in the 4th District, and officers there have plenty of contact with lawbreakers across the ethnic spectrum. Last year, the district had five homicides and 243 robberies, totals that were the second-highest of Montgomery's six districts and slightly above the figures for 2006. Assaults and rapes were down, and the 4th District covers 89 square miles, making its crime rate relatively low compared with those in some parts of the Washington area.

In earlier periods this year, robberies and car break-ins increased in the police district. But police locked up several suspects, including a 22-year-old caught toting money and a pry bar in a stolen Winnie the Pooh backpack, whom they suspect are linked to a rash of such incidents. The crimes have subsequently gone down.

"It tends to go in cycles," said Lt. Jacques H. Croom, a deputy commander. "Right now we have a handle on it."

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