The Herald Bulletin

April 7, 2013

Elwood officer finds life mission in interpreting

Department launches Hispanic outreach program

By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin

ELWOOD, Ind. — One of the oldest maxims of law enforcement is “to serve and protect.”

A newly hired Elwood officer and certified interpreter wants to make sure that motto is extended to non-English speakers in Madison County.

John Davis, an Elwood native and volunteer police officer for the past two years, will start as a part-time officer this week as part of the Elwood Police Department’s Hispanic outreach program. With Spanish speakers representing an increasing segment of the population, officers with Davis’ skill set are becoming quite valuable. Even in areas like Madison County where the Hispanic population is relatively low, law enforcement needs conduits to communicate with every resident.

For Davis, the importance of reaching Spanish speakers is a personal mission.

Davis learned Spanish during his youth while he was in and out of foster homes and child services care. His mother struggled with alcohol and drug-addiction problems and was sent to prison when he was very young. The responsibility of raising Davis fell largely to himself, but while he was in foster care, he met many Spanish-speaking children who taught him not only their language, but their culture. He said he also often had bilingual parents, so learning another language became second nature.

He also spent time in Galveston, Texas, as a child, and continued to cultivate his knowledge of Spanish among the large Mexican-American population in the Lone Star state.

Now Davis wants to use this opportunity in law enforcement to give back to the Spanish-speaking community that gave him so much.

“I’m really passionate about law enforcement, especially because of my background, but I have a real hunger to work for [Spanish speakers],” Davis said. “We’re sworn to uphold the law for everyone, not just people who speak English. I want to try to give the same services to everyone.”

Davis’ skills have come in handy. Elwood Police Chief Sam Hanna said Davis has already interpreted in several criminal investigations and has been used by a few agencies throughout the county. Hanna said Davis’ empathy has already been instrumental in a few domestic abuse cases.

“We’re trying to reach that segment of the population and let them know we’re here for them,” Hanna said. “He’s been immensely helpful in making that happen.”

One particular case was especially difficult. Davis was called out to interpret for a woman who alleged a man tied her up, beat her with a belt and left her for days at a time inside his house. It took several hours of talking to Davis for the woman to open up and describe the abuse. Hanna and Davis agreed without an interpreter, there would’ve been no positive resolution.

“It took a lot of effort, and it was very satisfying when she finally broke down and started to share with us,” Davis said. “And she was living in a home with no heat, in the winter. It was a bad situation, and it was good to get her out of that.”

It will often be difficult reaching out to Spanish speakers, Davis said, particularly because of certain cultural differences. A large segment of the Hispanic population has Mexican lineage, and Mexico is a nation rife with corruption. In a study by Transparency International in 2012, Mexico was ranked 105th in the world in perceived corruption.

As a result, when police show up around Hispanics there is often an extra layer of distrust, Davis said.

“It goes back to cultural differences. Police aren’t necessarily a good thing for them, so it’s hard to break down barriers there.”

Other agencies in the county have taken strides to accommodate Spanish-speakers as well. Davis received his certification from the Public Agency Training Council. No officers at the Anderson Police Department or Madison County Sheriff’s Department have certified interpreters, but both have a complement of Spanish-speaking officers.

APD spokesman Joel Sandefur said his department has three officers who can assist in cases that need an interpreter. Sheriff’s Department Maj. Brian Bell said his department just hired an officer who can speak Spanish to replace an interpreter who just retired. Bell said the skill is becoming increasingly important.

“It’s huge. The Hispanic population is growing, and in some ways there’s a trust issue,” Bell said. “The best way to overcome that is with communication.”

Find Jack Molitor on Facebook and @AggieJack4 on Twitter, or call 640-4883.