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Sheriff’s Office trails Santa Rosa police in recruiting, training Spanish-speaking deputies

Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Acevedo was making rounds in a homeless encampment in mid-May just north of the Santa Rosa city limits when he rousted a man from a tent. After the man dressed, unzipped the door and stepped out, he was clearly alarmed by the presence of gun-toting officers.

He answered a few of Acevedo’s questions in broken English, so the deputy switched to Spanish. While the man could still have been arrested for camping on private property, the fear in his face subsided with the opportunity to speak his native language.

“Being able to talk to people in their own language changes the whole interaction. People are more comfortable and more open,” said Acevedo, one of 23 Spanish-speaking deputies on the force. “Sometimes I’m the only Spanish-speaking deputy on a shift so I have to drive all over the county for calls.”

Despite a yearslong effort to build bridges with Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities in Sonoma County, the Sheriff’s Office lags behind the Santa Rosa Police Department in recruiting and training Spanish-speaking deputies.

About 10 percent of the 236 sworn deputies at the Sheriff’s Office earn bilingual pay for their Spanish-language ability. At the Santa Rosa Police Department, 43 percent of its sworn officers receive additional pay for their language skills. The major difference is more Santa Rosa police officers have a basic proficiency that deputies lack.

Fluency and high proficiency are determined by whether a deputy or officer can conduct in-depth investigations in a second language and is able to read, write and speak with a command of grammar and vocabulary. Deputies and officers with basic proficiency in a second language can respond to emergency situations, give directions and procure basic information.

About 11 percent of Santa Rosa police officers are fluent Spanish speakers versus 9 percent at the Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s no question the Sheriff’s Office needs to do a better job recruiting and training deputies who speak Spanish,” said Jerry Threet, director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. “It’s hard to connect to Latino and immigrant communities when you can’t speak their language.”

Threet, who doesn’t speak Spanish, noted it can take a lot of time for people to warm up to him when he addresses public safety concerns of immigrant communities through an interpreter. But when someone addresses the group in Spanish, “the thaw is instantaneous,” he said.

In Sonoma County, about 18 percent of the population age 5 and older — roughly 86,000 people — speak Spanish at home, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 5 percent of residents age 5 and older — about 24,000 people — have little-to-no English language skills.

For the Sheriff’s Office to interact with that segment of the population, its few Spanish-speaking deputies drive around the county to assist on calls. Acevedo, who spends most of his time in northern Sonoma County, routinely responds to calls in Petaluma and Roseland. He also helps translate for the Windsor Police Department, where the only Spanish speaker on the force is current chief and sheriff’s candidate Carlos Basurto.

“I know our bilingual deputies carry a higher workload than others,” said Deputy Mike Vale, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. “I’d like to see them get paid more.”

Pay could be part of the reason the Santa Rosa Police Department has more Spanish speakers than the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s deputies earn 90 cents more an hour if they are fluent or have a high proficiency in a second language, and 45 cents more an hour if they have functional ability.

Bilingual pay at the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t changed in almost three decades. When Acevedo came to the Sheriff’s Office in 1988, he earned less than $15 an hour, plus the 90-cent hourly bonus for Spanish fluency. Now his base hourly pay is more than four times what it was then, but he still earns the same rate for his language skills.

Santa Rosa police officers fluent in Spanish get paid an additional 5 percent of hourly base pay, and officers with a basic proficiency get paid an additional 3 percent of base pay. A new recruit fluent in Spanish would come to the Santa Rosa police earning at least $2.09 an hour in addition to base pay. A recruit with basic proficiency would earn an additional $1.25 an hour, nearly 40 percent more than a fluent deputy sheriff with a long tenure earns for his or her skills.

Just two deputies receive 45 cents an hour extra for basic proficiency, while 76 of the 175 sworn Santa Rosa police officers meet the same basic bilingual standard. Many Santa Rosa police officers didn’t come to the job with Spanish language skills, but studied along the way.

“We encourage our officers to learn Spanish,” said Capt. Rainer Navarro. “We provide instruction materials but officers learn on their own time.”

Finding qualified recruits is difficult in general, Navarro said, never mind ones who speak Spanish. This is part of the reason Santa Rosa police encourage officers to learn Spanish. At the Sheriff’s Office, there hasn’t been the same push for deputies.

For Acevedo, who’s nearing the end of his more than 30-year career in law enforcement, better bilingual pay wouldn’t affect him much.

But looking toward the future he hopes the Sheriff’s Office offers more competitive pay to bring more Spanish-speaking deputies to the force.

“I think the pay does have something to do with us not being able to recruit more Spanish speakers,” Acevedo said. “If you’re a bilingual Spanish speaker and you see there’s extra money at other departments it’s a no-brainer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.