The New Orleans Police Department said Tuesday that it plans to station bilingual officers in each of its eight districts.
About a dozen officers have signed up to take the department’s first bilingual certification exam for Spanish-speaking cops on Saturday.
Exams for other languages, including Vietnamese, are expected to follow, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said at a news conference at police headquarters.
Officers who are certified as bilingual will receive a 5 percent pay increase, Harrison said.
The department initially plans to assign any certified bilingual officers where there’s an obvious need for them. NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said that will likely include the Mid-City and New Orleans East neighborhoods covered by the 1st and 7th Districts, where large numbers of Spanish and Vietnamese speakers live.
As more officers become certified, the goal is to spread them across the entire city.
The move comes after the NOPD recently reassigned its Hispanic and Vietnamese community liaisons to district patrol assignments as part of an effort to get more officers on the streets and reduce dangerously high response times.
Those two officers, Janssen Valencia and Stephen Nguyen, also served as on-call translators as part of the so-called “El Protector” program, a 5-year-old effort to get members of two of the city’s most sizable minority populations to trust the NOPD enough to report crimes.
Valencia, who now is patrolling the 1st District, is among the officers who have signed up for Saturday’s certification test, Gamble said.
A number of groups criticized the decision to reassign the liaisons, saying it damaged efforts to improve the NOPD’s services for non-English speakers, as was mandated by a federal consent decree signed a few years ago.
But the NOPD insists it has a plan to remain in compliance with those mandates. Aside from certifying bilingual officers, the department said, it has equipped each district with translation devices that officers can use in the field. Criminal complaint forms as well as information about the consent decree are available in Spanish and Vietnamese at NOPD district offices.
On a related issue, Harrison said the NOPD has received approval from consent decree monitors for a policy going into effect Feb. 28 that explicitly restricts officers from asking about a resident’s immigration status, except in response to life-threatening situations and in cases where such an inquiry is necessary to execute a warrant or other court order.
“Immigration is a federal issue, not a local issue,” Harrison said. “Our job is to investigate whether a crime was committed in our city, and if that person is a witness, victim or perpetrator.”
This is not the first time the NOPD has announced that approach. But there have been numerous instances of New Orleans cops assisting deportation efforts by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to New Orleans’ Congress of Day Laborers.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Congress leader Santos Alvarado said his group was optimistic about the NOPD’s new initiatives as well as the immigration status policy.
“This a firm step toward strengthening the confidence level between our community and the police,” Alvarado said in Spanish, adding that his organization spoke with the NOPD about boosting the number of bilingual officers on the force. “This can be an example for other parishes ... and sheriffs there in how to build trust between them and our community.”