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City police hope Mexico trip helps officers build trust here
Saturday, July 8, 2006

Richmond police Lt. Michael Zohab needs to speak Spanish on a daily basis.

Zohab is responsible for Sector 212 in South Richmond, where a large percentage of the city's Hispanic population resides. He finds himself in many situations where residents speak only Spanish or feel they convey their thoughts better in their native language.

Because of his limited Spanish, most of the time Zohab relies on interpreters.

"When people get excited, I can't understand anything," he said. "That's the most important time for me to understand what's going on."

In an effort to improve their Spanish-speaking skills, Zohab and officers Patrick Brady and Karen Spencer are heading to Mexico today for a two-week language immersion program. Brady is in the gang addiction program and Spencer has been working with the Hispanic community.

"A lot of our victims are Hispanic," Zohab said. "It's imperative that if we want to make progress in the Hispanic community, we need to have more officers who speak Spanish."

The department has 14 officers who identify themselves as Hispanic, said police spokeswoman Kirsten Nelson. Eight of those and a white officer speak fluent Spanish, she said. The city's Hispanic Liaison Office estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 Hispanics live in Richmond.

The police academy trains recruits how to police the Hispanic community. That includes some basic Spanish, Nelson said. Officers also can sign up for a voluntary Spanish immersion program, she said.

Zohab said the best way to learn the language is becoming immersed in it. Traveling to Mexico for a couple of weeks of intensive study is less expensive than taking an immersion course here, he said.

"Here, you are paying twice as much, and you are not getting the cultural aspect," Zohab said.

The cost for the program is $873 per person, plus airfare. The money for the trip came through a grant from the attorney general's Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, Zohab said.

The three officers will live with a family in Cuernavaca, about an hour south of Mexico City. They will have 50 hours of instruction a week plus homework, lectures and excursions.

Zohab said he had some Spanish in high school and took courses offered by the police department. The three officers traveling to Mexico took a Spanish course by computer in preparation for the program.

"There's a lot of pressure for us to do well," Zohab said. "We're the experiment."

Depending on how well the three do, more officers might be able to take advantage of the program, Zohab said.

Studying Mexico's culture
A couple of days before heading out, Brady went to a bookstore to buy an English-Spanish dictionary to go along with his textbook on Spanish verbs. His Spanish is very limited, he said.

"I can't carry on a conversation with people," he said. "I can arrest someone in Spanish."

Even if he could comprehend the language, Brady said, he doesn't understand the culture. The trip to Mexico should help.

"Any opportunity we have to learn, we should take it," he said.

After reading warnings not to trust the police in Mexico, Zohab said he understood why many Hispanics fear local police.

"Speaking the language will give [Hispanics in Richmond] a sign that we can be trusted and that we're working toward their best interest."

Tanya Gonzalez, who manages the Richmond Hispanic Liaison Office, said there's no better cultural experience than to live with the people in the country where Spanish is spoken. She often interprets for police in questioning victims of crime and at safety and crime-prevention workshops for the Hispanic community.

"In two weeks, they will learn a lot," she said. "This will enable them to communicate directly with people. Just acquiring the cultural aspect is invaluable. They will understand why some people do certain things here. They can also incorporate that information in future programs."

Contact staff writer Juan Antonio Lizama at or (804) 649-6513.