KPD officer bridging divide in language barriers, issues in Latino community

Hispanic Heritage Month

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Part of any growing community is forming a connection with local law enforcement and vice-versa.

For one officer in the Knoxville Police Department, who was raised in Miami by parents of Puerto Rican descent who spoke Spanish at home, speaking a second language has really paid off some years later while patrolling the streets of Knoxville and beyond.

“I’ve been called out for KFD. I’ve been called out for TDOT to help with a motorist on the side of the road… Been called out by other agencies like KCSO and THP to help from anything from a traffic stop, DUI, somebody that is injured, a tire blown or what-have-you,” shares KPD officer Stephen Mercado.

Breaking down language barriers for Officer Mercado is like bridging a gap between law enforcement and Knoxville’s expanding Hispanic community – a topic that is always top of mind for the officer.

“They’re afraid of law enforcement,” he explains. “South America, even Mexico, where-have-you.. so when they come over here they are not really sure how law enforcement is.”

That’s an image Officer Mercado and fellow KPD officers are working to change, by being able to communicate and reassure them that law enforcement here is not to be confused with the officers in the countries from which they came.

“To break down those barriers and just allow people to see us… that we are somebody you can call when you need us,” he says, “It almost immediately disarms them. There’s sort of a smile that pops up, like, ‘oh, you understand me. I can talk to you. This is what’s going on.’ Then we’ll get into it. We’re not all about ‘this,’ and we’re here to help.”

Helping is the number-one goal, which comes with understanding.

“I think that’s a lot of what our goals are nowadays as law enforcement officers,” says Mercado. “To break down those barriers and just allow people to see us as somebody you can call when you need us.”

Mercado also says that KPD’s Academy actually includes about a week of learning to speak basic Spanish. He tells me just knowing a little bit of the language can help bridge what sometimes could be a big gap.

*Note: Acronyms mentioned by Officer Mercado stand for the following: Knoxville Fire Department (KFD), Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), Driving Under the Influence (DUI).

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