The state Attorney General’s office announced an agreement with Middletown police on Friday that, it is hoped, will strengthen access to police services for the city’s growing Spanish-speaking population.
AG Eric Schneiderman has made increasing access to public services for non-English speakers a major focus, but much of the work so far has been on voting access. This is only the second such agreement with a law-enforcement agency; the first was with the Nassau County department, announced in January.
The department agreed to improve interpretation services for victims, witnesses and suspects; take steps to identify bilingual officers; and train both current and new officers in the revised language-access policies, according to a press release from Schneiderman’s office. It says that Middletown police and the AG’s office will meet regularly to discuss progress.
The city has been trying to recruit Spanish-speaking police for about a dozen years, offering civil service tests in English and Spanish. Currently, five of the city’s 70 or so officers are Spanish-speakers, plus a few dispatchers and civilian staff, said police Chief Ramon Bethencourt.
Bethencourt also said the department already has some forms available in Spanish, and they plan to translate more of them soon.
The AG’s office focused on Middletown due to the city’s growing Spanish-speaking population — about 40 percent of the city’s population is Latino, and almost a fifth of the people in the city speak English less than “very well.
Bethencourt said communication with Spanish-speaekrs is “quite often” a problem for his officers. He said he hopes improved communication will also mean that more incidents involving Spanish-speakers will get reported to police.
They discussed a few other things that didn’t make it to the final agreement, Bethencourt said. For example, the AG’s office suggested making sure a Spanish-speaking officer was on each shifts, but he said the union contract, which says police can pick their shifts based on seniority, made this impossible to implement. The state also suggested hiring translators, which would’ve cost the city money.
Bethencourt said he thinks the initiative is a good thing, but that the AG’s office should expand it to other communities and provide some funding if they want to see them expand their outreach efforts. There are other towns in Orange County with large numbers of Spanish-speakers where the police haven’t taken the steps Middletown has, he said.
“Overall, I think it’s a good endeavor,” he said. “I’m not opposed to it. I welcome the transparency. This is a large part of our community. We have to embrace it and help out the best we can.”