Jackson Police Dept. Focuses on Improving Communication with Spanish Speakers

Officers recently returned from a three-week language immersion program in Costa Rica

Jeremiah Peery, a sergeant with the Jackson Police Department, celebrates with one of his Costa Rican host families, Emileo and Elsidida, at Elsidida’s birthday party. (Courtesy photo from Jeremiah Peery)

By Kristi Eaton

Special to the Wyoming Truth


Jeremiah Peery has long been interested in mastering the Spanish language.  

Peery, a 35-year-old sergeant with the Jackson Police Department, has studied Spanish since middle school and even enrolled his 7-year-old son in a dual-language program at a local public school. 

“Spanish is the second language of the United States,” Peery said in an interview with the Wyoming Truth. “….In many other countries around the world, [you are] expected to learn multiple languages. And I think it’s time for the United States to embrace that.” 

Peery is leading by example. He recently returned from CPI Costa Rica, a three-week Spanish immersion school, to improve his language skills around public safety, part of the Jackson Police Department’s efforts to increase communication with local Spanish speakers. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 3,300 of Teton County’s 23,000 residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, although those residents may speak  Spanish and English.  

At CPI Costa Rica, students learn how to communicate common statements and expressions in Spanish to help them carry out their jobs, according to the school’s website. The curriculum includes grammar and vocabulary focused on public safety.  

“I’ve been speaking Spanish now my entire career, but I’ve, at times, shortcutted,” Peery said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to stick with what you know. You get good with certain conversation routes. I’ve never gotten an opportunity to live in a Spanish-speaking country for any amount of time. And this program really interested me because it involved homestays.”      

In addition to Peery, Detective Amanda White, 42, took part in CPI Costa Rica’s public safety language program.  

Jeremiah Peery shares a laugh with one of his teachers, Sydnia, at a Spanish immersion program for law enforcement professionals in Costa Rica. (Courtesy photo from Jeremiah Peery)

Police Chief Michelle Weber, who funded the officers’ participation with $6,000 from the police department’s patrol training budget, told the Wyoming Truth that she hopes to increase the number of officers who can speak, read and write fluent Spanish. The ultimate goal: strengthen communication, in daily conversations and times of crisis, when it might not be possible to locate a translator. Program participants are expected to create a community outreach project, with details still being worked out.  

During the immersion program, Peery started his day speaking Spanish over breakfast with his host family. It was an opportunity for him to focus on improving his use of the past tense, which he had long found challenging. From there, Peery spent four hours in class, completed homework and took excursions to local sites.  

For Peery, the homestay experience was just as important as the classroom instruction.       

“It forces your brain to have to start speaking Spanish as soon as you wake up and the last thing you do before going to bed,” he said. “Also the conversations with the families are very interesting, because they are engaging quickly and deeply with a perspective you are not familiar with. It was an interesting way to reflect on my American way of life in comparison to the Costa Rican way of life.” 

Peery and the others traveled to three locations in Costa Rica—Heredia, Monteverde and Flamingo—and interacted with members of the law enforcement community in addition to their host families. Peery, for example, dined with a federal judge and met local police officers. He also enjoyed conversation with another officer about presidential motorcades.  

“It was one of the most enriching law enforcement trainings that I’ve completed in my 16-year career,” he said.  

White agreed it’s important for police officers to communicate with Spanish speakers in Jackson. Unlike Peery, she is a self-described “relative beginner” and plans to enroll in language classes in Jackson to further develop her skills.       

“It just gives me more motivation to keep working and building on what I learned,” White said. “I have a little more competence in trying to speak to people now.” 

Daniel Fetsco, assistant academic professional lecturer at the University of Wyoming’s Department of Criminal Justice, said bilingual police officers are effective at building community trust.  

“When you are policing, it’s common knowledge to the general public [that] a good deal of our society speaks multiple languages,” Fetsco said. “In fact, for many people in the United States, English is a second language. If the responding officer can speak Spanish, then that person is going to trust them, they’re going to open up more freely. Not only that, [but] if a person can communicate with them and speak the same language, they’re going to get a better [and more accurate] report.” 

In less than a month, the Spanish immersion program already has paid off in Jackson for Peery. Recently, the police department received a call from a business owner about possible domestic violence. “I was able to get on scene and instantly talk to them in an [informal] non-robotic way,” explained Peery, noting that none of his co-workers speak Spanish. “They were immediately able to communicate with me that it was a misunderstanding.” 

By bridging the communication gap, Perry learned that the call involved a husband and wife who were actually tickling each other and being flirtatious in a public setting. “We were able to communicate in a way that eased all the tension out of that interaction,” he said.    

Though Peery said he ranks “intermediate low” for his Spanish speaking, writing and reading skills, he hopes to retest soon to gauge his improvement.       

“If you want to level up quickly,” he said, “three weeks [in immersion] will get you one level up.”  

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