The drunken man on a downtown St. Paul light-rail platform didn't speak English, which would have been a problem for Metro Transit patrol officer Jason Malland a little while ago.

But this time, Malland addressed the man in Spanish and succeeded in getting his name and date of birth.

In the past, Malland had to resort to hand motions, pointing to his own driver's license and even singing "Happy Birthday" to get the information he needed to solve crimes and help victims.

"Now all I have to do is ask," he said.

Malland is one of 20 officers learning Spanish through Metro Transit's first-ever in-house language training program for police. On 10 Wednesday nights from January to March, officers gather at the East Command center on Transfer Road, where for two hours they learn vocabulary and conversational phrases by practicing on one another. The class is designed to help officers build rapport with Hispanics and better serve the people they interact with.

"In law enforcement you head out with a gun and a stick, and we need to give people different tools," said Lt. Jason Lindner, who set up the class at the direction of Chief John Harrington. "This is not super in-depth, but it gives the ability to say hello with a smile and grasp the basics. That helps break down barriers with the people we serve."

Harrington saw a need for the training because officers making their daily rounds and responding to calls are increasingly encountering people who only speak Spanish. Yet a scant few of the 200 full- and part-time officers speak the language. The communication breakdown leaves officers feeling frustrated because they can't get information to pursue a case, and leaves victims feeling anxious and distrustful.

In offering Spanish to its officers, Metro Transit joins other transit agencies such as the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which requires its fare enforcement officers to take a 40-hour "Spanish for Law Enforcement" course.

Relevant vocabulary

When Metro Transit announced its Spanish class, officer Caroline Pruter jumped at the chance.

"There are lots of language barriers, especially when these nice people get their phones stolen and all they speak is Spanish, and you're standing there saying, 'I'm sorry, I can't understand you,' " said Pruter, a patrol officer in Minneapolis. "It's a big struggle and I feel so bad. It's frustrating."

The first few weeks featured lessons on numbers and the alphabet, including a song that went with it. Then came vocabulary words for weapons commonly used in crimes: gun (pistola), knife (cuchillo) and bat (bate). That was followed by the words for phone (telefono), backpack (mochila) and wallet (cartera), items that are frequently stolen at rail platforms and bus stops. In coming weeks, officers will learn how to give directions, ask questions to find out what happened to someone and give commands to keep people safe.

Sessions stress speaking. In one exercise, instructor LeAnn Taylor had officers pair up. One drew a picture of a person. The other used Spanish words for hair color, tattoos, scars and other distinguishing features to form questions that an investigating officer might ask.

"They are learning questions they would use on the job, such as, 'Were you robbed?' " said Taylor, a contract instructor from Normandale Community College in Bloomington. "This is vocabulary-oriented. They speak and comprehend. I tell them just to communicate and don't worry if it's wrong or right. Grammar just puts up walls."

In the beginning, Malland said he got tripped up on sentence structure and the differences for using the right words for you or I. Now, halfway through the class, the 37-year-old, who has been with Metro Transit for three years, says it's becoming more natural.

"It [the class] has been really helpful and it's fun to use it," he said. "I had a Rosetta Stone program and tried to practice with that. That is great for household Spanish, but this is better because it is related to what I do."

Talking about trust

The classes are breaking down more than a language barrier, he said.

"I notice that most of the people we deal with don't trust us, but if you show even small words of Spanish, they say 'Oh, he's trying to speak to me in my language.' That is a big way to open communication. It makes them more trusting of you, just the fact that you are trying to talk to them in their language."

Pruter said she knows there will be times when communication with Spanish speakers won't be easy, but she is confident that she will be able to answer questions she gets every day.

"They will feel more comfortable in that we are taking the time to get to the bottom of it and not just brushing them off because we don't understand them."

Lindner said this is a good first step to get officers in touch with other cultures. He hopes a class in Somali will be offered in the future.