VIRGINIA BEACH , Va. -- On a given day, about 100 inmates at the city jail can't speak English. Fewer than 50 sheriff's deputies know another language.
Outside the jail's walls, the problem is even worse. Police officers patrolling Virginia Beach streets sometimes have to wait for a half-hour or longer for a bilingual officer to come and help them deal with a non-English-speaking crime suspect, victim or witness.
Officials in both departments are hoping to attract and reward staff members who are proficient in a second language by offering more money.
Sheriff Paul Lanteigne started a program this summer after the City Council gave him permission to use $75,000 from a department fund that includes federal money for housing immigration and customs detainees. Police Chief Jake Jacocks hopes to follow suit with a similar incentive program in place by year's end for city officers.
The plans would make the city the only one in South Hampton Roads to pay deputies and officers a stipend for being proficient in a second language. Norfolk Police Chief Bruce Marquis is considering such a policy, a department spokesman said.
After English, Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in this area, officials said. Census figures show that Virginia Beach's Hispanic population has surged 24 percent in the past five years, although that demographic still accounts for less than 6 percent of city residents.
Officers frequently request a Spanish-speaking colleague to help on a traffic stop, interview or investigation, according to Jacocks. An informal survey of police last year showed that 20 officers said they were fluent, or could at least carry a conversation, in a language other than English.
Fifteen said they spoke Spanish. The rest could communicate in Portuguese, Russian, Italian and American Sign Language, Jacocks wrote in a letter this summer to Fagan Stackhouse, the city's human resources director, appealing for money for bilingual officers.
After hearing of Lanteigne's plan, Jacocks said he contacted the sheriff to learn more. He said the police department's proposal likely will be modeled on the sheriff's plan, which ties a stipend to the employee's proficiency level.
As of last week, three deputies qualified for the highest stipend - $100 per month - after demonstrating an "advanced" knowledge of Spanish, department officials said. Lanteigne and other department administrators have said they hope the incentive pay will encourage more deputies to take the exam or take college classes to learn another language.
Jacocks said it wasn't clear how much the new program will cost, or whether his department will have to make any cuts to fund it. Money from the department's current budget likely will have to be used to pay for it, he said.
"It's certainly important enough to do that," he said. In addition to helping other officers on the street, Jacocks said, the stipend also might help draw more Hispanic applicants, which federal officials have said the city needs.
"If we have Spanish-speaking officers looking to apply somewhere, and they see a stipend for their language skills," he said, "I think that'd be an incentive."