Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Acevedo was making rounds in a homeless encampment in mid-May just north of the Santa Rosa city limits when he rousted a man from a tent. After the man dressed, unzipped the door and stepped out, he was clearly alarmed by the presence of gun-toting officers.
He answered a few of Acevedo’s questions in broken English, so the deputy switched to Spanish. While the man could still have been arrested for camping on private property, the fear in his face subsided with the opportunity to speak his native language.
“Being able to talk to people in their own language changes the whole interaction. People are more comfortable and more open,” said Acevedo, one of 23 Spanish-speaking deputies on the force. “Sometimes I’m the only Spanish-speaking deputy on a shift so I have to drive all over the county for calls.”
Despite a yearslong effort to build bridges with Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities in Sonoma County, the Sheriff’s Office lags behind the Santa Rosa Police Department in recruiting and training Spanish-speaking deputies.
About 10 percent of the 236 sworn deputies at the Sheriff’s Office earn bilingual pay for their Spanish-language ability. At the Santa Rosa Police Department, 43 percent of its sworn officers receive additional pay for their language skills. The major difference is more Santa Rosa police officers have a basic proficiency that deputies lack.
Fluency and high proficiency are determined by whether a deputy or officer can conduct in-depth investigations in a second language and is able to read, write and speak with a command of grammar and vocabulary. Deputies and officers with basic proficiency in a second language can respond to emergency situations, give directions and procure basic information.
About 11 percent of Santa Rosa police officers are fluent Spanish speakers versus 9 percent at the Sheriff’s Office.
“There’s no question the Sheriff’s Office needs to do a better job recruiting and training deputies who speak Spanish,” said Jerry Threet, director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. “It’s hard to connect to Latino and immigrant communities when you can’t speak their language.”
Threet, who doesn’t speak Spanish, noted it can take a lot of time for people to warm up to him when he addresses public safety concerns of immigrant communities through an interpreter. But when someone addresses the group in Spanish, “the thaw is instantaneous,” he said.
In Sonoma County, about 18 percent of the population age 5 and older — roughly 86,000 people — speak Spanish at home, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 5 percent of residents age 5 and older — about 24,000 people — have little-to-no English language skills.
For the Sheriff’s Office to interact with that segment of the population, its few Spanish-speaking deputies drive around the county to assist on calls. Acevedo, who spends most of his time in northern Sonoma County, routinely responds to calls in Petaluma and Roseland. He also helps translate for the Windsor Police Department, where the only Spanish speaker on the force is current chief and sheriff’s candidate Carlos Basurto.
“I know our bilingual deputies carry a higher workload than others,” said Deputy Mike Vale, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. “I’d like to see them get paid more.”