Standing in front of a group of more than two dozen citizens' academy graduates, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey and El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder tried out a few phrases in Spanish.
Their efforts elicited giggles and applause. Several people took out their phones to record the law enforcement heads laughing and talking before handing out certificates to graduates of the state's first Spanish-language academy.
"I know just enough Spanish to be dangerous - peligroso," Carey joked.
About 80 percent of the 30 graduates speak only Spanish, said Deputy Carlos Gutierrez, who works in community relations at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.
"There is a lot going on in this country nowadays, and we want to make sure we're going down the right road in Colorado Springs and El Paso County," Carey said, a nearby officer translating his remarks into Spanish for the group. "I have a lot of things at work to keep me up at night - not enough staffing, violence in the country - but one of the big things that bothers me is that when someone is a victim of a crime, whoever they are, they don't feel comfortable talking to their sheriff's office or their police department. We can't have that here."
One of the graduates, Jose Luis Muñoz, said he hasn't ever been afraid of law enforcement, but he knows that some are in the Hispanic community.
"I will tell all of the people I know that yes, they should come and learn and get along with law enforcement," Muñoz, 38, said in Spanish during an interview after the graduation ceremony. He said he signed up for the academy to learn more about the work officers do.
Graduates attended four eight-hour sessions to learn about law enforcement departments and take tours of buildings like the courthouse and jail. There were K-9, SWAT and bomb squad demonstrations.
The program was a joint effort between the Sheriff's Office and the Colorado Springs Police Department.
It's important to take part in educational programs like the academy because laws vary by country - and even by state - said Ciria Schulz, another graduate. She is from Mexico but has lived in the United States for a year and a half.
"This course covered a lot - it covered so more than I hoped," she said in Spanish.
Many of the instructors didn't speak Spanish, so the academy used a whisper system - Gutierrez translated the sessions live, and students who wanted the sessions to be in Spanish listened through headphones. The whisper system cost about $7,000, and translating the citizens' academy manuals into Spanish cost another $3,000, all of which was purchased using grant money.
The materials can be used again for future academies, which are likely to be held annually.
The academy followed Cafecito con un Policía, a Spanish-speaking version of Coffee with a Cop that was launched locally in October.
Gutierrez hopes the events break down barriers and facilitate understanding between the Spanish-speaking community and law enforcement.
"Before we were doing any kind of community outreach, the Sheriff's Office, I believe there was a disconnection between the Spanish community and law enforcement," said Gutierrez, who lived in Mexico for 17 years. "There was like a broken bridge - that's how I see it. The Spanish community walked toward the bridge, and law enforcement walked toward that bridge, too, but they couldn't connect. We needed that last, final connection on that bridge."
Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198