RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — When Fuquay-Varina Police Chief Brandon Medina began his law enforcement career, he was the only Spanish speaker at his agency.
“I happened to rise up through the ranks in that agency being the first sergeant that was Spanish-speaking and then being the first lieutenant as a Spanish-speaking law enforcement officer,” said Medina.
Now as chief, his Spanish skills are often a point of comfort for other Hispanic people he comes across while on the job.
“I tell them I’m half Puerto Rican and half Guatemalan. I speak Spanish and then I’ll start a conversation in Spanish and I give them a business card,” said Medina.
He says sometimes those people call back.
“[They] say hey I want to run something by you, or I have a friend that needs some help and will run that situation by me,” said Medina.
Sergeant Jamie Price with the Raleigh Police Department knows the important of sharing language first hand.
“My mom didn’t speak English up until I was in my 20’s so I saw how rough it could be when in your community when you can’t communicate with first responders,” Priest said.
Priest is nearing retirement. Over his 25 year career, he’s seen a change in diversity.
“There were sometimes we’d go a shift without a Spanish speaking officer. Fast forward to today, there are several law enforcement officers that speak Spanish,” said Priest.
Outside of patrolling, he uses his language skills at community events like soccer camps where he can get to know not only kids who show up, but their Spanish speaking parents who come with them.
Today, both Raleigh and Fuquay-Varina say they have a Spanish speaking officer on every shift. Medina occasionally acts as translator himself over the phone or radio.
Bilingual officers have become even more essential. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials reported between 2010 and 2020, the state’s Latino population has grown close to 40 percent– many of them are Spanish speakers.
Raleigh reports 22 of their officers have passed a Spanish language proficiency test and five of Fuquay-Varina’s officers are Spanish speakers.
Even in their small numbers, officers from Raleigh to Fuquay-Varina say speaking to people in their own language can help bridge gaps in trust.
“When you show up they’re nervous or tense and all of sudden as they hear you speak, it relaxes. It brings a smile to them. They open up and tell you things that they’re too scared to tell you or can’t tell you,” said Priest.
Both agencies say they’re working to recruit more officers who can speak a second language. In Raleigh, officers who pass a second language proficiency test can get a five percent pay increase. In Fuquay-Varina they can get a $1,000 bonus.
Their language skills are critical in emergencies.
“Sometimes the language barrier slows things down and prevents us from doing our job, so to me, that’s the most important thing and most valuable thing that I can provide my community,” said Priest.
And critical in building trust.
“Anytime you have an agency the reflexive population at the serve, it builds that trust,” said Medina. “We are looking to build that trust.”