Borough resident Karla Ortega, left, translated remarks by Lieutenant Juan Sardo into Spanish as Councilwoman Kate Triggiano, right, looked on at last week’s council meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
In what may be a first in New Jersey, Red Bank police will be able to draw on a team of local volunteers to help them bridge language divides in dealing with the public.
A new program championed by first-term Councilwoman Kate Triggiano will make volunteer interpreters available to help police in their normal duties as well as at community events, she said.
Unveiling the program at last Wednesday’s regular council meeting, Triggiano said the program is based on one in Houston, Texas, “one of the most diverse cities in America.” Red Bank’s, she said, may be the first in the Garden State.
Serving as liaison to the program is Lieutenant Juan Sardo, a native Venezuelan who came to Red Bank at age six not speaking English.
“Like many of the residents who make up the demographics of Red Bank, I had to adapt to a new culture and language,” Sardo told the council meeting audience. “I know that we face many challenges as Hispanics and Latinos, and even greater challenges as speakers of a second language.”
So far, the effort has attracted seven volunteers who speak Spanish and one who speaks Russian, Sardo said. Bilingual speakers of all languages are invited to participate, and the department is particularly hoping to find individuals who know Portuguese and American Sign Language, he said.
The police department currently has at least one Spanish speaker on each squad who can be called into situations to help translate for officers who don’t speak the language, Sardo said in an interview. But if no one is available, “sometimes it’s the case where you can’t communicate” with a victim of or witness to a crime, he said.
“It’s nerve-racking, especially for the victim,” Sardo said. “People may think police don’t take their concerns seriously.”
Unlike the Houston program, Red Bank’s volunteers will not go out on patrol with police. Instead, they’re more likely to be called via phone to help translate, or in some situations, asked to come out to a scene, Sardo said.
The volunteers will be trained in department policy on their role, issued polo shirts in a color to distinguish them from police employees, and will “never be put in a situation that’s not secure or safe for them,” Sardo told redbankgreen.
The names of the interpreters are not being released to the public, and they’ll be identified on police reports by their initials, he said.
Under a related effort, the department has instituted a chaplaincy program to offer pastoral care to officers, community members and people held in custody. Sardo said eight leaders, mostly of Christian and Jewish faiths, had signed up, and several had completed a chaplaincy program run by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s office.
The volunteers will be available to help police in crisis situations and to console survivors, “without proselytizing,” in cases where someone has been injured or died, he said. They’ll also be available to department members for support.
“No one is confronted with more situations that demoralize, or create mental and spiritual burdens, than a law enforcement officer,” said Sardo. “These burdens also affect the officer’s families and other members of the department.”
With his words translated into Spanish by Karla Ortega at the council meeting, Sardo told the audience the two programs will “help foster unity” between the police and the community.
“There isn’t any space for xenophobia, racism, bigotry, negative stereotypes or ethnocentrism,” Sardo said.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, himself an Italian immigrant who came to Red Bank via Canada as a boy, thanked Sardo and Ortega in Spanish, and noted that he didn’t speak English on his arrival.
“You’re making us very proud,” Menna told the volunteers, “very proud of what you do and what we stand for.”
Sardo said he hopes to have all the interpreters and chaplains attend the department-sponsored National Night Out Against Crime event scheduled for the evening of August 6. The event, with free food and games, is being held this year for the first time at Count Basie Fields, rather than borough hall.
Resident Itzel Perez , an immigrant who said she had a “really, really, really scary” episode as a child when she accidentally dialed the Red Bank police on her parents’ phone and didn’t know what to say to the person who answered, said it was “incredibly touching” that the program was created here.
“We know that we live in troubling times,” said Perez, “but I’ve always been proud that Red Bank actually steps up to the plate and does something to cross the bridge and really engage the community.”