Language barriers tackled differently among Fairfield County police
FAIRFIELD — For a number of police officers in Fairfield, a routine traffic stop can become an unexpected language barrier.
Such was the case for Sgt. Mike Paris of the Fairfield police in February.
“It’s tough. I use whatever Spanish I know from school or use translating applications,” Paris said. “Sometimes it’s hard to communicate. Also when people are not cooperative, we try to do everything we can.”
Though it may not be a common occurrence, police in town are bound to come across a situation that involves a non-English speaker, and knowing additional languages can be an immense aid.
Fewer than 15 officers out of the 105-strong Fairfield force speak another language, according to Capt. Robert Kalamaras.
Those who can speak other languages like Spanish, French and Italian have what Kalamaras describes as another “tool” at their disposal.
“It has yet to be a problem,” Kalamaras said of the language barrier. “At times we have someone who speaks Mandarin and we use translating apps in those cases.”
Officer Gregory Carroll, from previous work, picked up Spanish from his coworkers and can get by, though he recognized the speaking part is the most difficult.
Inevitably, there are also situations where there is a more pressing need for an officer that can translate and interpret other languages. That leads Fairfield police to seek help from other departments like Norwalk and Bridgeport.
“In times where we have victims of crime and a translator is necessary to elicit information, we use mutual aid from a department that has a higher second-language speaking population,” Kalamaras said.
While there is no explicit requirement or law that says police departments must hire a certain amount of multilingual officers, these types of officers are invaluable assets according to Police Chiefs Connecticut Association President James Cetran.
“When we’re hiring somebody, if I have a choice between hiring somebody who knows another language and one who doesn’t, I’ll choose the first officer because it’ll be beneficial to us in the future,” Cetran said.
Across Fairfield County, police departments vary on how they consider or approach a possible language barrier.
Darien and Norwalk police departments, for example, have contracts that financially incentivize officers to validate their language skills.
A Norwalk police officer can get a $600 stipend a year if they are fluent in another language. There is no double dipping — a hyperpolyglot would still only get $600 a year.
According to Lt. Terry Blake of Norwalk, 36 out of the 179 sworn officers receive the yearly stipend. The most common second language among the Norwalk force is Spanish — spoken by 22 officers — followed by Greek, French, Italian and others.
“Officers have to pass a fluency test conducted by a third-party agency,” Blake said. “The stipend was negotiated and is part of our collective bargaining agreement.”
Darien cops also have their language skills tested through a third party in order to qualify for a stipend.
“As far as helping, with the always-increasing number of people for whom English is a second or non-language, having officers that can communicate effectively is a necessity,” Detective James Palmieri of Darien added.
New Canaan and Greenwich police, like Fairfield, currently don’t provide stipends in their contracts for officers who speak additional languages.
“When dealing with individuals that don’t speak English, we would utilize our own officers first if available to translate,” Lt. Jason Ferraro of New Canaan said.
When no officer is immediately available, New Canaan police use Voiance, a translation service where an interpreter can be reached via phone or other types of communication.
Police departments can also rely on other forces’ officers for help with language issues, something officers call “mutual aid.”
Cetran, who has been police chief of Wethersfield for 16 years, said one of their officers, Peter McGee, is in high demand due to the fact that he knows sign language.
“It’s invaluable and we kind of share resources,” Cetran said.