As Oklahoma City continues to grow and change, so does the makeup of its population. More and more people from other countries are calling the state’s capital city home.
With that come some challenges for those who don’t speak English, but the Oklahoma City Police Department is also growing and changing with the times.
A few years ago, the department created a bilingual unit to address the growing need for officers who speak and know another language.
Police headquarters is where the bilingual unit is based, and these officers don't just speak Spanish.
“It is very diverse,” said Oklahoma City police Captain Paco Balderrama. “We have people who communicate in sign language, we have Spanish speakers -- approximately 40 of them."
Officer Mohammed Tabiai immigrated to America from Morocco and is fluent in Arabic.
He came to Oklahoma City 15 years ago and patrols the southwest side of Oklahoma City which has a mix of cultures and nationalities.
In fact, Tabiai has already been commended for exceptional service by both the Oklahoma City Council and was awarded the 2016 Oklahoma City Kiwanis Police Officer of the Year.
But he’s not the only officer on the 50-plus member team making a difference.
Detective Loc Nguyen is from Vietnam and has used his native language to help those in the Vietnamese community report crimes in their neighborhood. He has been on the Oklahoma City police force for the past five years and has helped other agencies.
“Sometimes, I help with the federal agencies when they need a Vietnamese speaker,” said Nguyen. “It’s made a difference.”
Sgt. Tony Escobar is the bilingual unit coordinator and does what he can to put the right officer in the right place at the right time. These officers work together to help their fellow OCPD officers break down any language barrier they may encounter.
“It’s busy, it’s very busy,” said Escobar.
Balderrama said this is something they have been doing quietly behind the scenes for years, but have now formalized to accommodate the growing cultural needs of the city.
Balderrama said every officer associated with the bilingual unit takes an oral proficiency test and the department has mandates that guide which officers handle which crimes.
“Obviously, we don't want to put a beginner speaker to interpret on a homicide investigation,” said Balderrama. “If we can't communicate, we can’t get information.”
All three men News 9 spoke with on the bilingual unit said they do this because they love to serve their communities, and don't want a language barrier to keep a crime from being reported or solved.
Balderrama also said every cadet at the police academy goes through more than 70 hours of Spanish language training.
Some officers also carry language line pamphlets, where you can point to your native language and then the officers can get an interpreter that speaks that language to help with communication.
Balderrama said the City will reimburse part of an officer’s tuition who seeks to improve his foreign language skills, and the department offers extra compensation for those who learn another language and assist the bilingual unit.