The field of criminal justice in the United States is as diverse as the individuals in which professionals in the field come in to contact. In addition to police and detective work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that those with a criminal justice degree can work as probation officers in the field of pretrial services, assist addicts as substance abuse treatment counselors and also work with families and individuals as social workers. Federal and state agencies mandate training modules and testing score adherence, so as to vet candidates for open positions. Even so, it is frequently overlooked that being multilingual greatly assists a criminal justice professional in a chosen field, to the point of being an essential skill.
It may seem odd to consider multilingual training to work as a peace officer in the mountainous regions of Wyoming. Then again, a lesson learned by California’s Los Angeles Police Department shows that it is no longer sufficient to be merely bilingual in a predominantly spoken foreign language, which in this case is Spanish.
Los Angeles has become a melting pot of immigrants. While it is great to see the United States grow in such a way, there a few drawbacks associated with this growth, particularly for the immigrants. When a foreign-born store manager called the police for help after being robbed in 2010, he was mistakenly fired upon by the officers. The police believed him to be one of the robbers. In fact, L.A. Times writers reveal that this mistake was due, in part, to a language barrier. The manager’s thick African accent made it difficult for officers to understand what he was trying to communicate.
Clearly, having a multilingual police department would go a long way to prevent potentially fatal instances such as this one from occurring. In this case, the store manager was lucky: the shots the police fired in his direction missed. Yet if the Los Angeles Police Department had a staff that was well-versed in various accents (such as African, Latin American and Asian), this situation could have been avoided entirely. Not only that, but also having staff members that can speak a second (or even third) language is a huge asset when it comes to garnering nuanced witness statements, concise perpetrator descriptions and otherwise interacting meaningfully with the general population.
Protecting the interests of the city, county and state
Remember also that a multilingual criminal justice workforce protects whoever is responsible for the department, whether it is the city or state, from lawsuits. Even if America was not the litigious society it has become, there are very real damages associated with wrongful deaths, erroneous wounding and property damage caused by law enforcement mistakes. However, being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language help officers avoid making possibly deadly mistakes that eventually result in multi-million-dollar verdicts.
Re-defining community involvement
Of course, there is a lot more to being a criminal justice professional than interacting with residents in the wake of an emergency or crime. While this is indeed the time that law enforcement and support services are the most visible, there is a host of community involvement opportunities that occasionally go by the wayside due to language barriers.
The City of Tomball, TX, outlines that community involvement is a major aspect of vetting prospective police officers for open positions. In fact, before joining the force candidates must show that they are visible and involved within their local communities. Once hired, they must continue this trend, not just in their home communities, but also in other neighborhoods where their duties may take them. As such, being able to speak at immigration advocacy rallies, visiting multi-cultural schools, interacting at street fairs and a host of other venues provides nearly limitless opportunities for civic involvement.
Personal benefits of being multilingual
In addition to potentially endless possibilities available for bilingual professionals, there is the confidence that comes from being able to interact fluently in assigned communities. Whether the professional is a drug cessation counselor, peace officer or court clerk, being able to overcome the language barrier and converse in a client’s native tongue ensures accuracy. Doing work without errors enhances poise and professional standing. The latter is associated with a better position to ask for added remuneration.
In the case of upward mobility, multilingual skills set one apart from a pool of applicants that may consist of monolingual or merely bilingual would-be new-hires. In fact, a language that features a number of dialects—think Spanish—makes it easy for a bilingual criminal justice professional to quickly branch out and get additional skills. Learning Guatemalan Spanish or adding the Costa Rican or Salvadoran dialects to the catalog of one’s abilities greatly increases the employee’s ability to effectively work among a wider array of neighborhood residents.
In addition, being multilingual also enhances a criminal justice professional’s ability to move between departments and into positions that target certain ethnic groups and foreign-born populations. Occasionally these positions are new and groundbreaking, which allows one to get in one the ground floor of an organization. Shaping the system within the United States offers remuneration and personal satisfaction that is well worth the extra effort of learning more than two languages. It is clear that a multilingual professional is, and will be, on the cutting edge of her or his profession.