In a city that's increasingly speaking Spanish, only about five percent of Hesperia's sheriff's deputies read and write the language well enough for the department to certify them as bilingual.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 census, 28.3 percent of the residents in the 92345 ZIP code identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. (The same census said Hispanics made up 31 percent of San Bernardino County's population as a whole.)


Six years later, according to the census bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, that number had jumped almost 20 percent, as 46.8 percent of Hesperia residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino.


Spanish-speakers are witnesses, victims and perpetrators of crime. But few of Hesperia's deputies are able to speak and understand Spanish: Of the 55 deputies based out of the Hesperia station of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, only two are bilingual, by the department's definition. (Two more deputies are accounted for in the city's Fiscal 2008-2009 budget, but have not yet been added to the roster.)


"We, as a city, go through the county sheriff," said Mayor Thurston "Smitty" Smith. "We can request Spanish-speaking deputies, and we do not always get them. And we have been requesting them. ... Victorville, Cucamonga, probably all of the cities they serve, they probably all request them, too."


The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department considers personnel as bilingual when they are able to pass a written test that qualifies them for an additional $50 per paycheck.


"You have two at the station who qualify, and about 100 patrolmen who qualify. But that doesn't mean that's all the people who can speak Spanish," said department spokesman Lt. Rick Ells.


In fact, during their training at the academy, future deputies learn how to ask basic questions in Spanish, as well as how to issue a few basic commands.


"When deputies are out on a call, and they need a translator, they can call into dispatch and get one," Smith said. "We do have enough translators, they're just not out on the street."


"There's always people at dispatch who speak Spanish. So if there's a problem, the dispatchers can tell the deputies what's being said in Spanish," said Ells. The department also contracts with a translation firm that offers translation services for additional languages as well. "When you've got a crime victim who speaks Spanish and you need to get a description out right away, that's the option."


Hesperia's proportion of bilingual deputies is comparable to the department as a whole: Out of approximately 2,000 officers -- including higher ranking officers who tend to work at their stations, rather than on the streets -- only 100 or so have passed the department's written test and are considered bilingual and qualify for the $50 a week bonus.


"We put a high priority on hiring people who speaking Spanish," Ells said. "We prefer to hire over half bilingual. ... Ideally, we'd like everybody to speak Spanish."


Other government agencies offer financial incentives to aid in the recruitment of desirable employees -- the Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 to new recruits with superior language skills -- but the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department is unlikely to follow in their footsteps any time soon.


"Obviously it's not going to happen right now, with how money is," Ells said.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.