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A bilingual sergeant in the St. Helens Police Department is helping officers learn Spanish phrases.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: ST. HELENS POLICE - Police Sergeant Jose Castillejo instructs fellow officers on language training. A sergeant with the St. Helens Police Department is helping colleagues learn Spanish language skills, in an effort to improve police outreach within the St. Helens community.

Sgt. Jose Castilleja held a training session recently to help officers who are not bilingual. Currently, just four of St. Helens' 19 sworn officers speak Spanish, he told the Spotlight.

The idea is to train officers on basic phrases that often come up during a police stop — phrases such as "can I see your driver's license?" — and to teach the officers some conversational Spanish so they can understand when Spanish speakers talk to them.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 7.2% of St. Helens residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. While Castilleja said that may not seem like it's a lot, "it's a sizeable population, and it's just growing," he added.

Castilleja added, "In order to accommodate all of our citizens the best that we can, I share my knowledge of Spanish language and culture, and share that with the officers, along with some terms."

As part of his training, Castilleja instructs officers on regional dialects.

"There are also Native languages in each country," Castilleja added, noting that Indigenous groups, such as Maya and Nahua peoples, cross over national boundaries: "The same thing happens in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala."

At the recent training session, officers learned how to translate basic commands or questions into Spanish. The officers welcomed the training, Castilleja said.

"It was interesting," Castilleja said. "Part of what we did was have them share experiences that they've encountered with language barriers and how they were able to overcome that challenge."

Castilleja plans on holding another training session at an undetermined date in the future. He says he's pleased to be able to help his fellow officers, and through them, the Spanish-speaking community.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've enjoyed a really warm relationship with the Latino community here in St. Helens for a long time. With the guys, it was neat to have that interaction — this is another tool in the toolbox. It was fun."

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