As he sat in classes at the Allegheny County (Pa.) Police Academy a decade ago, Juan Polanco said he became aware of the need for cultural awareness training among recruits.
Now a University of Pittsburgh police officer, Polanco has returned to the academy to teach other officers what's known as "survival Spanish."
"It's not a language class," said Polanco, 51, a native of the Dominican Republic. "I teach phrases, words that can save their lives."
The Hispanic population in Allegheny County has increased to 19,070 in 2010 from 11,166 in 2000, according to census data. About 26 percent of the more than 14,000 Spanish speakers in 2010 said they speak English less than "very well," according to the American Community Survey in 2010. But Polanco's lessons go beyond language.
"The biggest payoff was him giving us a lesson in culture," said Pitt police Chief Tim Delaney, who had Polanco teach Pitt officers "survival Spanish" soon after he joined the force in 2002.
Officers from other departments call Polanco to help diffuse situations complicated by language barriers or to conduct interviews with suspects, witnesses or victims. Polanco tries to change the relationship between police officers and the Hispanic community.
"With me showing up right away, the nonsense stops," Polanco said. "They're honest to me. They see one of their own as a police officer. They like seeing that."
Language concerns for officers on the job, in fact, are simple, he said. Polanco customized a field guide of Spanish phrases, such as "manos arriba" for hands up.
Trouble communicating can complicate interactions between police and the Latino community, said Samaria Arzola, director of the Latino Family Community Center, a South Side group that assists families with young children.
"Let's say they're at a traffic stop and police are asking for documents. Sometimes, they can be confused, and they don't know what is going on," Arzola said.
Racial profiling used to be more of a problem among city police, but that has declined, Arzola said.
"I haven't had that many complaints recently in the city," she said. "Outside the city, it's a whole other story."
Allegheny County police Inspector Wayne Gaffron, director of the training academy, said he believes the instruction Polanco provides will help new officers conduct traffic stops or handle domestic situations.
Gaffron said he tries to include nonmandated training, like Polanco's class, in the curriculum.
"We're always on the search to improve our program to better prepare our future law enforcement officers," Gaffron said. "I have a pretty open mind when people come up with ideas."
Pittsburgh police have a list of city officers with second language skills and can call translators through AT&T, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said. The officers can attend the county's training class, he said.
"When we are trying to communicate with individuals who have limited English language proficiency, there are a lot of different avenues we can take," Donaldson said.
Polanco left the Dominican Republic when he was 8. He lived in New York City, then moved to New Jersey, where he graduated from high school. A body builder, he played eight football games his senior year, but it was enough to earn a spot with the University of Pittsburgh football team. He graduated in 1983 with degrees in administrative justice and psychology.
"This has been home ever since," Polanco said.
He worked at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center for about 10 years after college, then began a construction business in Shadyside.
At 40, he decided another career change was in order and went through the Allegheny County police academy.
"There was something missing," Polanco said. "Trying to make a difference has always been a part of me."
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