116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Officer Juan Santiago, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, remembers when he was the only Spanish-speaking officer in Johnson County. Now, he’s on the cusp of retirement but still feels officers with foreign language skills are not “rewarded or acknowledged as much as (they) should be.”
“We’re not asking for special treatment but we do have a special set of skills.” Santiago said.
Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, has served Johnson County as a high risk unit officer and as an officer for North Liberty Police Department. He considers himself to be the longest-standing Spanish speaking officer in Johnson County.
“Now we have about four or five other law enforcement officers in our county that speak Spanish, but when I first started I was the only Spanish-speaking (officer),” Santiago said. “So I got called out a lot for the different agencies like Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Corridor P.D., at the jail. I was used quite a bit.”
Johnson County is home to over 10,000 Latinx Iowans, and Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the county as well as in the United States overall. In 2019, the Migration Policy Institute found that about 130,400 Iowans age five and up spoke Spanish at home. Of those, 62.9 percent say they speak English “very well.”
This does not include undocumented immigrants.
The Gazette spoke with 39 law enforcement agencies in Eastern Iowa. Twelve agencies had at least one bilingual officer. Of those 12, all but one spoke Spanish.
Eleven agencies did not respond to multiple requests for information.
Santiago is joined at the North Liberty Police Department by Officer Ricardo Vazquez, who also speaks Spanish. Vazquez said he returned to policing after working as a Cedar Rapids firefighter because he believed he was needed as a bilingual law enforcement officer.
“It’s almost like a sense of relief,” Vazquez said of translating. “They see that I’m there, I speak Spanish, and I can help them communicate. I can be a voice for them.”
Of the surveyed agencies, 24 used a translation service such as the court-certified phone service LanguageLine.
LanguageLine requires officers to call in and request the language needed. Then, officers are immediately connected to the interpreter.
All languages are not always available — it depends on the interpreters who are working at that time.
Vazquez said if an interpreter is unavailable, officers will use Google Translate.
“Which is not your ideal situation,” Vazquez said. “But we try and overcome those obstacles by thinking outside the box as much as we can.”
Some areas use community members as translators. In Jones County, that means calling James and Marcela Rickels.
Deputy James Rickels is a member of Jones County Sheriff’s Department. There, officers know to call Rickels when they need his wife, native Spanish-speaker Marcela, as a translator. Marcela typically translates for jail intakes and for those there for operating a vehicle while under the influence, or OWI.
“They generally call me first and then I hand the phone,” Deputy Rickels said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time where they’ve contacted her outright.”
The Rickelses work as a team to create what Deputy Tim Miller calls “a constant flow of conversations.” With Marcela speaking to the subject and Deputy Rickels on the other line with the officer, the conversation is uninterrupted.
“When you connect with somebody, you’ve only got minutes to seconds to stay connected with that individual,” Miller said. “But if you want to continue to break that line of communication (and) say, What did you say? What does that mean? — you lose them.”
Marcela Rickels’ introduction to translating for law enforcement was informal, and she is not paid for her work despite operating on an on-call basis.
“I think this is kind of like a volunteer, community-service thing,”she said. “If I can help the officers and my husband with that, I mean, I’m always willing to help.”
Miller said subjects are told before the call that they are speaking with a civilian translator.
“But there’s no legal problem because we also record our phone calls,” Miller said. “If for some reason, if somebody wanted to say they were coerced or that ‘That’s not was told to me, I didn't understand what they said,’ we have everything recorded.”
Lack of bilingual officers slows investigations
The 2021 trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera magnified the consequences of Iowa’s small pool of Spanish-speaking law enforcement officers. Bahena Rivera, who was found guilty of the 2018 abduction and killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, was identified as a person of interest four days before investigators spoke with him.
Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Trent Vileta testified that the time-sensitive investigation slowed because “we didn’t have any Spanish speakers.”
The 2018 investigation took place in Poweshiek County. The Spanish-speaking officer used in the investigation, Officer Pamela Romero, came from Johnson County — two counties away.
Vileta said Officer Romero was chosen, despite her lack of interrogation experience, because she was a native Spanish speaker.
The 34-day investigation ended when Bahena Rivera led investigators to Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield. Criminalist Tara Scott testified that heat, UV rays and soil were factors that could have weakened the DNA evidence found in the cornfield.
The time spent obtaining the services of a Spanish-speaking officer allowed for further decomposition of Tibbetts’ body.
Retaining officers during police shortage
In 2021, the Nebraska State Patrol launched a program that provides a 2.5 percent salary increase to bilingual troopers. The program applies to current troopers and new hires.
Iowa does not have an incentive program to attract and retain bilingual officers.
In an email to The Gazette, Iowa City Police Capt. Denise Brotherton echoed the sentiments of many of the surveyed Iowa police departments.
“The city of Iowa City does not specifically recruit for bilingual officers although that is certainly a desired skill and we do not receive any funding for that purpose,” Brotherton wrote.
Mike Battien, Cedar Rapids public safety communications specialist, noted that, “Several years ago, CRPD offered language classes for officers designed to give them basic skills in Spanish,” he said. “Those classes were gradually phased out with the advent of mobile-ready solutions that provided comprehensive, court-approved language translation services.
“The city of Cedar Rapids offers tuition assistance to employees and if an officer chooses to take classes to improve their foreign language skills, (the officer) would quite likely qualify for reimbursement.”
Battien added that Cedar Rapids doesn’t currently offer a pay incentive to multi-lingual officers.
Many agencies are struggling to find qualified candidates as the applicant pool has shrunk in the past four years, Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Director Judy Bradshaw said. Retaining officers also has been a challenge.
“For some, it’s not viewed as that career that they’re going to stay at (at) this organization. A lot of them leave after seven to eight years,” Bradshaw noted.
“A lot of them make decisions that they’re going to leave law enforcement completely.”
The academy trains police officers and dispatchers on how to interact with non-native English speakers and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“We caution them on things such as using the child to interpret and, unless you’re fluent, trying to hobble through,” Bradshaw said.
Translation resources are not automatically embedded into a law enforcement agency. The academy makes officers aware of resources to bring to their own communities.
“Those are all coordinated through their agencies,” Bradshaw said. “If (law enforcement agencies) haven’t sought out these resources, these are the things agencies need to be thinking about.”
Communication training is embedded in courses that cover topics such as trauma-informed interviewing, communication through domestic violence and implicit-bias training. Implicit-bias training covers microaggressions, stereotypes and unconscious bias related to race, gender and other identities.
Despite the increase of bilingual officers in his career, North Liberty officer Santiago said he does not believe departments or community leadership have made an effort to target or serve minority populations.
“Not a single city council member has reached out to me, not a single chief or sergeant has reached out to me,” Santiago said.
“I speak for myself, but I also speak for several other minority officers in my community that I’ve shared this with, and not a single one of them has been approached and asked, ‘What can we do to help this population?’”