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'Stark Cops Speak' pilot program hopes to bridge foreign language divide

A Canton police cruiser is parked in Downtown Canton.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Canton police officers are learning Spanish through a pilot program offered through the Greater Stark County Urban League.

A pilot program in Stark County is teaching police officers how to speak Spanish to better communicate with the county’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Stark County’s Hispanic population is on the rise, with 8,727 as of 2022 up from 5,850 in 2011.

The program builds on recent calls for police reform after the deaths of two Black men during encounters with Canton police in recent years and the use of a police dog during the arrest of a Black man in May. In a letter sent to Police Chief John Gabbard, Director of Public Safety Andrea Perry and City Council in early June, Greater Stark County Urban League President and CEO Thomas West called for community-centered policing and ongoing education for officers, among other requests.

"The Stark Cops Speak program is an excellent way for our law enforcement officers to engage with our growing Hispanic population," Canton Communications Director Christian Turner said in a statement. "Programs such as these help to bridge gaps in cultural awareness and improve community relations."

The Greater Stark County Urban League is offering the free, six-week course. The class aims to teach officers basic words and phrases they may use when interacting with Hispanic residents, West said.

“How do you pull down your window, right? Commands that a lot of police officers make when they pull somebody over, they’re able to say that in the Spanish dialect," he said.

The pilot program was developed from a similar program offered through the Urban League that teaches English speakers Spanish and Spanish speakers English, West said. This class was so successful that both groups were able to have conversations with each other at the end, he said.

The Stark Cops Speak course goes deeper than language, West said.

"They learn about the history and where the Spanish population are coming from so a little about their cultural background," he said.

Officers from Canton, North Canton, the Stark County Sheriff’s Office and Stark Parks rangers are enrolled in the class, West said.

"The officers are still getting paid while working by learning Spanish," he added.

The class wraps up July 3.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.