As the deadline looms for the police officer competitive exam, community advocates renewed calls Wednesday for Nassau police agencies to recruit more bilingual officers.
The issue has become contentious during the last two years, with activists criticizing the Civil Service Commission, which administers the countywide police test, and the Nassau County Police Department for falling behind demographic trends in an increasingly diverse county.
Currently, 28 percent of the population -- many of them Hispanics -- speak a language other than English.
"It's their responsibility to get the numbers that they need in terms of recruitment in order to ensure that there are qualified applicants," said Lucia Gomez Jimenez, executive director of La Fuente, a community advocacy group with an office in Hempstead.
Advocates want a Spanish language proficiency section included in the police exam and a separate, preferential list of qualified bilingual candidates.
Police candidates have until Oct. 12 to apply for the Dec. 9 test. Officials for the Nassau County Civil Service Commission could not be reached Wednesday.
Police officials defended their efforts to recruit bilingual candidates. The department has more than 100 officers who speak English and Spanish out of a force of about 2,200, and relies on telephonic translation services when dealing with other languages, said First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Krumpter. Krumpter said the department is investing $2 million to attract a diverse pool of candidates, but it cannot establish "a bilingual preferential list" without approval from the U.S. Department of Justice."We are totally in favor of having bilingual officers," he said. "The more languages we can cover, the better we can serve the population."
In the meantime, advocates say emergency calls can be frustrating to all involved.
Pedro Reyes, a Hempstead resident, said he reported an assault and robbery in 2010, but he, the victim and the officer had to wait until a paramedic arrived to translate. By the time they explained what happened, Reyes said, the attackers were gone.
"We need bilingual police officers who could help us," Reyes said in Spanish. "We need to overcome the language barrier."