Proposed Gwinnett budget includes language lessons for employees

The language app wasn’t working inside the headquarters of the Gwinnett County Police Department West Precinct, which encompasses highly-concentrated immigrant communities.

Lt. David Pauly couldn’t sign in on his phone. Senior Officer Daniel Arrata couldn’t get his camera to capture the QR code. When they finally got the app up and running, Pauly told it, “You were speeding.”

“You were accelerating,” the translation read in Spanish.

The police department is testing out translation software, but County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson wants to take that idea further in her proposed budget for next year.

The budget contains more than $300,000 to teach employees — including police — the basics in foreign languages common in Gwinnett, and incentivize workers who already are fluent.

Gwinnett has grown into the most diverse county in the Southeast, with roughly one quarter of residents born outside the United States. Two years ago, a county commission — newly composed entirely of people of color — set an agenda focused on inclusion.

Hendrickson’s proposed budget would also fund a new position to spearhead county equity efforts.

“We deal with a huge volume of calls from residents and often times they do speak different languages, or their first language is not English, and there are some challenges with bridging the gap or even just understanding how we can provide services,” Human Resources Director Adrienne McAllister said. “There’s a need to meet our community where they are.”

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The county does not have data on how often employees need to speak languages other than English, but county courts in 2021 received more than 3,300 requests for interpreter services in 48 different languages, Chief Court Administrator Phil Boudewyns recently told commissioners.

Hendrickson’s proposed budget contains $250,000 for language classes that would be open to all employees and $72,000 for testing and incentives, McAllister said. If the money is approved in a Jan. 3 vote, the county will assess the language capabilities of its employees and solicit contractors for the classes, McAllister said.

The incentive amount for each multilingual employee has not been determined. It could help recruit more diverse applicants to the county government workforce, which is 59% white compared to just one-third of the overall county population being Caucasian, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of a county database.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The human resources department hopes to provide classes in at least two of the five most common foreign languages in Gwinnett: Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese, McAllister said. The lessons would focus on the vocabulary workers need most often on the job and target those who interact most with the public, such as police and code enforcement officers and receptionists at county headquarters.

The west police precinct, near Norcross, staffs at least one Spanish-speaking officer per shift, Pauly said. The central precinct, based near Duluth, frequently gets calls in Korean, said Cpl. Ryan Winderweedle, a department spokesman.

“I’ve encountered Vietnamese, Russian, Czech, Arabic,” Winderweedle said. “Sometimes there’s some small regional dialects of languages we can’t even find an interpreter for.”

Arrata immigrated from Ecuador when he was about 11 years old. One recent morning, he responded to an apartment complex off Jimmy Carter Boulevard, where one Spanish-speaker was trying to sell a pickup truck to another Spanish-speaker and needed an officer to fill out a required certification form.

The seller, Gilberto Perez Aguilar, was Mexican. The buyer, Ricardo Salmeron, was Salvadoran. Both have lived in Gwinnett County for more than two decades.

“I feel much safer speaking Spanish,” Perez Aguilar said in Spanish. “It’s easier to understand each other.”

The police department and county administration use a third-party phone line for translators, but prefer to tap fluent employees whenever possible.

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“Officers will hang up on the language line and call me,” Arrata said.

Sometimes it feels like he spends the whole day speaking Spanish. He swaps scenes with officers if Spanish is needed where they are. He gets calls to translate at home, after hours.

He has handled rape and shooting cases where the callers only spoke Spanish. In one case, a Spanish-speaker reported his brother had “disappeared” and Arrata, questioning his word choices, finally got the terrified man to admit his brother had been kidnapped for ransom. The FBI got involved and recovered the kidnapped man, Arrata said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Basic Spanish classes would help more English-speaking officers understand what kind of call they are responding to and what to expect at a scene, Arrata said, but victim and witness statements are so varied they require officers who are fluent in the languages.

Language skills can also help gain trust.

Arrata said he often goes to Latin American restaurants in uniform for lunch, where Spanish-speakers approach him, confiding they were victimized but didn’t call police right away because they were scared of deportation.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Arrata said. “I have to explain to them all the time. ...I will handle it, or we will handle it.”

Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

Most common languages other than English spoken in Gwinnett County homes

Spanish 173,054 speakers, 19.1% of population age 5 and older.

Other Indo-European languages e.g. Italian, Portuguese, Persian, Gujarati: 28,720 speakers, 3.2% of population.

Korean 27,833 speakers, 3.1% of population.

Vietnamese 22,477 speakers, 2.5% of population.

Other and unspecified languages 21,990 speakers, 2.4% of population.

Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) 15,881 speakers, 1.8% of population.

Source: American Community Survey 1-year estimates, 2021