Photo/Ernest A. Brown
WOONSOCKET â Maybe itâs 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 donât 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 cityâs only Spanish-speaking cop.
âYou can tell by the look on their faces, sometimes theyâre shocked,â he said. âOften you can tell thereâs a sense of relief, too.â
The latest figures from the U.S. census say 14.2 percent of the cityâs population of 41,188 residents identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic. Thatâs 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 cityâs largest ethnic minority, eclipsing both Asians and blacks.
âThe ability to communicate with people youâre going to run into on a daily basis is obviously important,â says State Police Sgt. Scott Raynes, the executive director of the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy in Lincoln. âIf youâre not able to communicate with whatever citizens youâre running into, whether itâs for some kind of crime, or just to assist them in some way, if thereâs a breakdown in communication thereâs going to be a breakdown in your ability to assist that person.â
Woonsocket Detective Jamie Paone calls Sosa âa bridgeâ to Woonsocketâs growing Latino population. Often, she says, heâs off-duty whenâs heâs called in to sort through situations where the ability to speak Spanish is needed to help officers gather information.
âA lot of times people feel more comfortable speaking to someone in their own native language â even if they can speak English,â 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.
âYou never know when heâs going to get called in,â says the chief. âLanguage is a big issue around here, and itâs not just Spanish. We also have a big Asian population, and we could use someone that speaks Laotian or Cambodian, too.â
Carey said itâs 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 havenât done anything wrong. Even victims of domestic violence may shrink at the prospect of sharing the details with someone who canât 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.
âJust that the officer is going to understand what their problem is, itâs important to them,â he says. âIt would be important to me too, if I was in that situation.â
Sosa has been a Woonsocket policeman for over three years and speaks English without a hint of foreign accent.
Heâs completely bilingual, which means he can switch back and forth from English to Spanish effortlessly. Hardly a day goes by when he doesnât 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, thatâs the language thatâs foreign to him â 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 âa better life, more opportunities,â 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 wouldnât let him give up. She made sure he got the necessary help in school to master English as a second language.
âThe easiest thing do would have been to move to a Spanish-speaking neighborhood,â said Sosa. âShe didnât want that. She wanted us to speak English. Total immersion, that was my momâs goal, for us to assimilate and move forward in a new culture.â
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 âa standup guyâ who carried himself with an air of confidence. It dawned on him that he wouldnât 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. âI talk to him sometimes,â says Sosa.
The WPD wasnât Sosaâs 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 doesnât sound like he misses the job. The prison population is potentially volatile because so many inmates are looking at long stretches of incarceration. Theyâre willing to take risks because they feel like they donât have much to lose. Corrections officers are thrown into the mix without weapons.
To survive in that environment âthe ability to deescalate situationsâ is essential, says Sosa. âYouâre not going to win a fight with 100 guys.â
Sosa still wasnât a U.S. citizen when he was hired at Wyatt, but he was by the time he left. Heâll 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.
âIt was one of the proudest moments of my life,â he says.
No matter what language heâs speaking, Sosa says heâs learned the truth of one of the earliest lessons of the police academy: Most of the time youâre going to be meeting people on the worst day of their lives.
But Sosa doesnât mind.
âI love every second of the job, every day I come to work,â he says. âI canât see myself doing anything else.â