When emergency strikes, immediate and effective communication is key: a crisis is no time to stop for translation.
Within the greater field of criminal justice, law enforcement officers act on the front lines of the law to maintain authority and keep us safe. They are on the streets, at the borders, and in our airports, seaports, parks, and prisons. When officers are able to speak the same language as the individuals they encounter, they enhance communication, promote safety, and prevent dangerous misunderstandings or unnecessarily violent escalations.
In recent years, highly televised protests and shootings involving police officers and racial or ethnic minorities are all too familiar and continue to illustrate the struggle for representatives of the law to build trusting relationships with the communities they serve. Sharing a common language is one way to drastically reduce communication roadblocks and foster better understanding.
More than one in five U.S. residents speaks a language other than English at home: that’s almost 62 million people, a record-breaking figure.1 Furthermore, over 25 million U.S. residents—roughly nine percent of the U.S. population—report that they speak English “less than very well.”2 Herein lies the enormous demand for a multilingual law enforcement workforce: if the community doesn’t speak English, officers need to be able to connect in their languages.
A Call for Bilingual Law Enforcement Officers
Language barriers—often in tandem with ethnic disproportions in the workforce—regularly prevent the law enforcement system from functioning as well as it could. Noting that about ten percent of Sacramento’s police force is of Latino descent, while the state is home to approximately 15 million Latinos, Carlos Quiroz of California’s Latino Leadership Council explains:
“If the police do not properly reflect the community they serve, it is difficult for the community to see it as a force that represents them rather than one that polices them. This leads to crimes not being reported, witnesses not coming forward and a community preyed upon by criminals who know their victims won’t have any recourse.”3
The Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggest some reasons why this imbalance remains so prevalent in their report, Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement. Due to underrepresentation, young people—including heritage speakers of critical languages—often ignore the possibility of law enforcement careers because they don’t identify with strong role models in the field who share their background. Hiring criteria for many agencies that require U.S. citizenship also poses a challenge, preventing a language-rich pool of candidates from applying to positions. The report also notes that the cost and complexity of application procedures, including multiple exams, further alienates otherwise qualified prospective applicants.4
To curb recruitment obstacles, some agencies have begun offering bonuses and other incentives to prospective and current officers who test proficient in a language other than English or who regularly speak another language as part of their main work responsibilities.
Law Enforcement Roles Requiring Language Skills
The United States Office of Justice Programs formally defines law enforcement professionals as:
“any officer, agent, or employee of a State, unit of local government, or an Indian tribe authorized by law or by a government agency to engage in or supervise the prevention, detection, or investigation of any violation of criminal law, or authorized by law to supervise sentenced criminal offenders.”5
About 18,000 federal, state, county, and local agencies in the United States each employ between one and 30,000 law enforcement professionals.6 Most of these employees are sworn officers who are authorized to make arrests and carry a badge and firearm; a smaller number of non-sworn civilian personnel support their efforts. In 2012, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program reported over one million state and local law enforcement employees nationwide, more than 750,000 of whom were sworn officers.7
Absolutely all law enforcement roles at the local, state, and federal level are improved when officers have advanced language skills. More specifically, some responsibilities performed daily throughout the sector that require officers to communicate in a language other than English include:
- Addressing participants present at an incident in a timely and reassuring fashion to diffuse fear or tension and to restore community morale,
- Speaking with witnesses or victims’ relatives and taking accurate testimony,
- Investigating criminal activity and collaborating with colleagues across departments, and
- Educating the public while developing trusting relationships through speaking roles at schools or community special interest groups.
- (Not to mention communicating with a foreign-trained canine, or “K-9,” partner!)
Is law enforcement the path for you? Here are just a few of the roles in which you could make a difference as a bilingual representative of your community:
Police Officer, State Trooper, or Sheriff
Perhaps the roles we most readily associate with law enforcement are those in policing or correction services. These sworn officers work at state and local levels to protect citizens and to respond to calls for help. They may also provide traffic assistance, delivery of first-aid, and security in courts.
Spotlight Example: New York Police Department (NYPD) officers speak 75 languages, and about 20 percent of the force is foreign-born. Should they come across a language in which they’re not proficient, the NYPD is equipped with Language Line cell phones to secure immediate contact with native speakers.
Probation officers, unlike the other peace officers listed above, focus specifically on working with individuals who have already been convicted of committing a crime. They often work in conjunction with juvenile courts to help young offenders get back on track.
Federal Special Agent
Agencies of the federal government that value multilingual law enforcement officers include (but are not limited to):
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
- United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS)
- United States Secret Service
- S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP)
Special agents and investigators for the FBI and other federal services use language skills to communicate with victims and witnesses, review evidence and materials, and collaborate with international colleagues in foreign governments.
Fish and Game Warden
Also known as wildlife or conservation officers, wardens work to enforce state code regarding fishing, hunting, boating, wildlife, and habitats; they also have the authority to enforce other state laws, as called upon.
Coast Guard Officer
Operating under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, the U.S. Coast Guard is the only branch of U.S. armed forces to serve a law enforcement mission, enforcing maritime law both domestically and internationally.
How Do I Get Started?
So, which language would be most helpful for you to study in preparation for a law enforcement career?
John Terrill, communications director at the National Association of Police Organizations, suggests one with which future officers can’t go wrong: “Any person who is looking to become a police officer in a major metropolitan area should pick up some Spanish.”8 And with over 37 million Spanish speakers resident in the United States, it’s career advice we can’t ignore.9
The reality is that law enforcement agencies are urgently seeking proficient speakers of any language who will serve as reliable resources, and it depends greatly on common languages spoken in the local community where officers and agents work. In addition to Spanish, languages with over a million U.S. speakers include Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, Korean, and Arabic.10
Most careers in law enforcement require a bachelor’s degree, and although some roles allow for a combination of education and experience, applicants with a degree have a clear competitive advantage. Students can choose to major in criminal justice or in a related subject matter outside the immediate field—such as accounting, psychology, sociology, STEM subjects (like computer science), or a modern language.
Here are some more ways to prepare yourself for a bilingual law enforcement career track:
- Using this site, just click on your state and scroll down to find a listing of all schools with criminal justice degree programs statewide, as well as the specific related academic majors offered by each university.
- The College Board also suggests “related majors” in addition to criminal justice for consideration.
- John Jay’s list of majors—including Spanish—serves as great inspiration, especially if you’re seeking a degree route other than a traditional BA in criminal justice, police science, or law enforcement.
Get On-the-Job Training with a Fellowship, Internship, or Volunteer Experience that Will Value Your Language Skills
- CBP: Youth Opportunities
- ATF: Internships
- DHS: The Secretary’s Honors Program (SHP)
- INTERPOL Washington: Internships
- World Endeavors: Criminal Justice Internships Abroad
- Also inquire about internship opportunities with your local police department.
In the News: Calling All Bilingual Police Officers!
- APD Lacks Multi-Lingual Officers as Populations Continue to Grow – The Austin Chronicle
- Bilingual police officers needed in southern New Jersey – The Washington Times
- Ideas worth stealing: Recruiting bilingual police officers – Keystone Crossroads
- NOPD building team of bilingual officers to improve communication with limited English speaking communities – City of New Orleans (press release)
- The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments – New York Times