WOONSOCKET – Maybe it’s a garden-variety traffic stop or a kitchen squabble between husband and wife, maybe something more serious.
More often than ever, the cops sent to find out what happened run into a fundamental barrier: They don’t speak the same language as the people involved.
Who you gonna call?
At the Woonsocket Police Department, the go-to guy is Patrolman Enrique Sosa, the city’s only Spanish-speaking cop.
“You can tell by the look on their faces, sometimes they’re shocked,” he said. “Often you can tell there’s a sense of relief, too.”
The latest figures from the U.S. census say 14.2 percent of the city’s population of 41,188 residents identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic. That’s a far cry from the nearby cities of Central Falls or Pawtucket, but it still gives Woonsocket the fourth-highest concentration of Latinos of any city in the state.
The census also says that 5.2 percent of the businesses in the city are Latino-owned and that nearly a quarter of all city residents speak a language other than English at home. Latinos are the city’s largest ethnic minority, eclipsing both Asians and blacks.
“The ability to communicate with people you’re going to run into on a daily basis is obviously important,” says State Police Sgt. Scott Raynes, the executive director of the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy in Lincoln. “If you’re not able to communicate with whatever citizens you’re running into, whether it’s for some kind of crime, or just to assist them in some way, if there’s a breakdown in communication there’s going to be a breakdown in your ability to assist that person.”
Woonsocket Detective Jamie Paone calls Sosa “a bridge” to Woonsocket’s growing Latino population. Often, she says, he’s off-duty when’s he’s called in to sort through situations where the ability to speak Spanish is needed to help officers gather information.
“A lot of times people feel more comfortable speaking to someone in their own native language – even if they can speak English,” she says.
Being the only Spanish-speaking cop can make for an unpredictable schedule for Sosa, says Police Chief Tom Carey, who wishes he had a few more like him to spread the burden around.
“You never know when he’s going to get called in,” says the chief. “Language is a big issue around here, and it’s not just Spanish. We also have a big Asian population, and we could use someone that speaks Laotian or Cambodian, too.”
Carey said it’s important for the police department to reflect the diversity of the community. He hopes having Sosa on board encourages other Latinos to aspire for work on the police force.
A strapping, barrel-chested figure of a man, Sosa, 35, says people whose best language is Spanish are often intimidated when they are being questioned by a police officer unable to communicate with them, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. Even victims of domestic violence may shrink at the prospect of sharing the details with someone who can’t understand them.
Sending in an officer who connects linguistically sends a message of trust, says Sosa. It can change the whole dynamic of what takes place between law enforcement and the people with whom the police have contact.
“Just that the officer is going to understand what their problem is, it’s important to them,” he says. “It would be important to me too, if I was in that situation.”
Sosa has been a Woonsocket policeman for over three years and speaks English without a hint of foreign accent.
He’s completely bilingual, which means he can switch back and forth from English to Spanish effortlessly. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t use Spanish on the job, but he hardly goes around bragging about it.
On the contrary, he seems more proud of his ability to speak English; after all, that’s the language that’s foreign to him – or at least it used to be.
Born in Guatemala, he lived in that Central American country until he was 14 years old, when his mother took him and his siblings to live in the United States in search of “a better life, more opportunities,” says Sosa. They lived briefly in New York, but they soon moved closer to relatives in Cranston, where he went to Parkview Junior High School.
Learning English when he came north was difficult, says Sosa, but his mother wouldn’t let him give up. She made sure he got the necessary help in school to master English as a second language.
“The easiest thing do would have been to move to a Spanish-speaking neighborhood,” said Sosa. “She didn’t want that. She wanted us to speak English. Total immersion, that was my mom’s goal, for us to assimilate and move forward in a new culture.”
Sosa got interested in law enforcement a couple of years after high school, when he was working at the Garden City Starbucks. One of his regular customers was Officer Jeff Duclos from the Cranston Police Department, a cop he remembered as a high school DARE officer.
Duclos, he says, was “a standup guy” who carried himself with an air of confidence. It dawned on him that he wouldn’t mind having a job like Duclos, so Sosa went to the Community College of Rhode Island to study criminal justice. He never lost touch with Duclos, who still works as a policeman in Cranston. “I talk to him sometimes,” says Sosa.
The WPD wasn’t Sosa’s first stop in law enforcement. In 2008, he landed a job as a corrections officer at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls.
Sosa says he learned some valuable skills at Wyatt, but it doesn’t sound like he misses the job. The prison population is potentially volatile because so many inmates are looking at long stretches of incarceration. They’re willing to take risks because they feel like they don’t have much to lose. Corrections officers are thrown into the mix without weapons.
To survive in that environment “the ability to deescalate situations” is essential, says Sosa. “You’re not going to win a fight with 100 guys.”
Sosa still wasn’t a U.S. citizen when he was hired at Wyatt, but he was by the time he left. He’ll always remember the induction ceremony, when he stood with his hand over his heart with scores of other immigrants at the Veterans Auditorium in Providence, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he says.
No matter what language he’s speaking, Sosa says he’s learned the truth of one of the earliest lessons of the police academy: Most of the time you’re going to be meeting people on the worst day of their lives.
But Sosa doesn’t mind.
“I love every second of the job, every day I come to work,” he says. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”