In the late 1990s, police officers in Lexington, Kentucky, faced a new linguistic and cultural challenge. The demographics of their city were changing at a dramatic pace; native Spanish-speakers had risen from nearly zero to an estimated ten percent of the local population over the past decade. Mexican immigrants, many undocumented and poor, were falling victim to crimes at a higher-than-average rate. Some of the immigrants were afraid to report to the police, and others could not communicate with the English-speaking policemen.
A large proportion of crimes went unsolved. Lexington officers had long made due with ad-hoc solutions to language problems. They would often ask bilingual bystanders to serve as informal translators. Professional translators were located only in larger cities, and it seldom made logistical sense to wait several hours for their services. In a citywide survey in 2004, 86 percent of Spanish-speakers reported that they would be more likely to report a crime to a police officer that could speak their language, and 66 percent claimed to have not reported problems in the past because of communication barriers.
The Lexington Division of Police sought to eliminate communication problems by training officers to speak Spanish. Efforts to recruit Spanish-speaking officers had failed, and no local university could create an effective conversational Spanish course that could meet police needs. Correspondence courses produced inconsistent results. Police officials then turned to the Kentucky Institute of International Studies. The Institute helps Kentucky students study in foreign countries, tapping into an international network of partner schools that encouraged foreign study.
In 2000, the Institute developed a course in conversational Spanish with a special focus on vocabulary necessary to police officers. After several weeks of study in Kentucky classrooms, officers spent five weeks in Mexico as an immersion program to cement their new language skills. Lexington police got far more than solid Spanish conversational training from their time in Mexico. The exposure to Mexican culture helped officers understand the customs of the immigrant population in Lexington. Cultural barriers had historically prevented police from communicating effectively with Mexican residents, even when language barriers did not.
After spending time in Mexico, officers found themselves better able to relate to immigrants, and much-needed mutual trust began to develop. Over ten percent of officers are now proficient in Spanish, with more being trained every year. Local officials state that Lexington police have been especially successful at preventing unsolved crime patterns often associated with Mexican immigrant communities across the country. Fewer cases remain open and fewer crimes targeting undocumented immigrants are committed in the first place. Lexington's novel approach to language training is a model for other cities with large immigrant populations.