The suspect's car had been pulled over to the side of the road and Arlington police officer Heather Meeker immediately realized that the driver didn't speak English.
"Abra la ventana," Meeker said in Spanish, telling the suspect from El Salvador to open the window. "Apague el carro," she added, prompting the driver to turn off the car engine.
With a flurry of instructions--albeit in slightly broken Spanish--Meeker quickly had the driver lie face down on the ground, his arms spread out and his legs crossed behind each other. "Tiene armas?" she then asked, making sure he didn't have any weapons.
The encounter was merely a mock felony car stop at last week's Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Sterling, but it illustrated a remarkable transformation for Meeker, who a week earlier could barely say "hello" in Spanish.
"It was frustrating," Meeker said of encountering victims, suspects and witnesses who couldn't speak English while she was on patrol. "You had to wait for a translator, but now I can talk to them and interview them and do it quickly so I can get the information out and help" investigate a crime.
Meeker was one of 15 officers from Washington area police departments, including Alexandria, Loudoun and the Metropolitan Washington Transit Authority, who last week took a unique Spanish language course designed for law enforcement.
Unlike high school or college Spanish courses, the intensive, week-long course teaches officers basic vocabulary and grammar geared toward police work, material that is not offered anywhere else.
The primary focus of the course is to teach officers how to do rudimentary interviews of victims and to give commands in Spanish when a suspect is apprehended or needs to be questioned and searched, said Robin Runser, spokeswoman for the Herndon police department, which conducts the course.
The course is taught by two Herndon police officers who first began teaching Spanish to other Herndon officers in 1998, creating Virginia's first and only ongoing Spanish immersion course taught by police officers.
Word about the Herndon program quickly spread to other regional agencies, whose officers were looking for Spanish instruction that would help them in their line of work without requiring extensive time off to learn the language.
The demand for the course reflects the growing Hispanic population. Police officials say they are encountering more Spanish-speaking victims and suspects. Latinos, the largest growing immigrant community in the region, now account for about 10 percent of the population, or about double the number in 1980.
Just three months after starting the course for Herndon officers in January 1998, the instructors, Mike Berg and Larry Hildner, found themselves teaching Spanish to officers from all over the Washington area.
In the last year, 200 police officers, corrections officers and dispatchers from 17 different jurisdictions have completed the course. Among the agencies that regularly send officers to the course are the Arlington County police, Fairfax County sheriff's office, Montgomery County corrections department and the transit authority.
Berg and Hildner, with the help of Jorge Rochac, a Herndon resident who volunteers as a translator, now teach the course six times a year. The class begins at 7:30 each morning and ends at 3:30 in the afternoon. Students are required to do several hours of homework.
"It's hard but it's fun," said Adrienne Pheil, an Arlington police patrol officer. "I've had to do homework while working out on the treadmill at home."
During the first few days, students learn basic vocabulary and grammar related to police work, such as giving directions, getting descriptions of people and interviewing victims and suspects.
At the end of the week, the students interview victims and conduct traffic stops entirely in Spanish, with Berg, Hildner and Rochac acting as the victims and suspects.
Hildner said the course is not intended to teach officers to be fluent in Spanish but rather to give the officers the confidence to continue learning the language and to "get by" when they encounter a Spanish speaker.
"We can't teach Spanish in a week," said Hildner, who is a motorcycle officer. His teaching partner, Berg, is a canine handler. "We're trying to build confidence so they can learn more Spanish and talk to people who can't speak English."
The program began shortly after Berg completed a Spanish immersion course offered by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy. No such program existed at the local level, prompting the Herndon chief to ask Berg to begin a curriculum for his officers.
"We were encountering more and more Spanish-speaking individuals," said Berg, a 13-year veteran of the force. "It was very frustrating to go on calls and not know what was going on."
David Pine, a Fairfax County police officer who graduated from the program last year, said the ability to speak Spanish has made his work easier and more rewarding. He patrols in the Mason District, which has a large Hispanic population.
"Just being able to talk to the community in their language has had a positive effect on their attitudes toward us," said Pine, who has been a Fairfax officer for four years. "I get great satisfaction seeing their faces when I approach them and speak Spanish to them. There is a huge barrier that is broken."
CAPTION: A manual used by two Herndon police officers to teach the Spanish course to other area officers.