Bilingual ISUPD officers overcome language barriers

Mackenzie Bodell, Senior Reporter

It is a natural reaction when placed under stress for people who know multiple languages to revert to a language that makes them most comfortable. That is why Iowa State Police Department Chief Michael Newton has put an emphasis on hiring officers who can speak multiple languages.

There are officers at ISUPD that communicate in Mandarin, American Sign Language and Spanish.

When Newton stepped into the position in 2017, the department was revamping the multicultural liaison officer program and moving it into the engagement and inclusion officer program. While doing this, they started looking at gaps within the department where they were missing opportunities to connect with more students.

There is a large number of individuals who speak Mandarin in the Ames community as well as on campus. The ISUPD wanted to hire a few officers who spoke Mandarin to be able to bridge that gap. They put out the application, and now the department has two Mandarin-speaking officers: Jay Meador and Alan Liu.

Liu was able to use his language skills to assist a Chinese student who had his bags stolen.

“It brings people at ease when this officer comes up and they’re speaking to you in your most comfortable language,” Newton said.

Liu was raised in China until 2014 when his mother sent him to the United States to aid his education.

“I didn’t even speak English,” Liu said. “She said, ‘I already booked for you, and you got to go to study.’”

Within eight months of being in the U.S., Liu had already passed his GED test with the help of his godfather, who taught him English. In 2016, Liu started at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky.

While in college, Liu majored in accounting and minored in exercise science.

“I was thinking that I didn’t feel like sitting at a desk and doing paperwork all day,” Liu said.

After graduation, the University of Kentucky was hiring a police officer, and a career in law enforcement interested Liu. He was a permanent resident at the time but needed citizenship to apply.

In 2019, Liu reached out to Iowa State, which was looking to hire officers.

“I kept in contact with them, and I said I just need to wait for my citizenship to be approved,” Liu said. “Last year, I got my citizenship and then applied to Iowa State.”

Liu was drawn to university law enforcement because he wanted to have the opportunity to help more people, especially international students. His main goal was to have a closer relationship with international students so they would not hesitate to contact the department.

“That was my main goal,” Liu said. “That way, I can use my ability to help more people with some language barriers.”

Meador is the other Mandarin-speaking officer. He was drawn to Shanghai due to his interest in skateboarding. He took the opportunity to learn Mandarin while he was there.

“At the time, I heard that China was going to be the place for skateboarding and that it was going to blow up,” Meador said. “Shanghai was the spot; I just thought that’s where I wanted to be.”

Meador spent three semesters studying the language before deciding to stop studying and learn it on the street. He can read both simplified and traditional Chinese, which includes the writing system in mainland China and the writing system in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Meador said he had a great experience living abroad in China, partly due to how the locals accepted him and helped guide him.

Meador’s sister is a librarian at Iowa State. He wanted to be closer to family and saw a job opening for a Mandarin-speaking officer. While he never thought too hard about law enforcement before, the idea of working with students drew him in.

“I could work with college students going through transitional periods in their life and felt like that would be a good place for me to be and kind of do outreach towards them and help people who spoke Mandarin get acclimated to the environment,” Meador said.

Meador said he looks forward to doing more outreach events. His goal is to get more in touch with international students, adding that he wants to let them know that the department is there for them.

“I feel international students don’t really know what they should go to the police for, and they might worry about being able to express themselves,” Meador said. “If more people knew that we were here, maybe more people will try to reach out to us and help them with things.”

Alongside the Mandarin-speaking officers, a few others with language skills have helped the department and the student population.

Lt. Jason Rieder has been with the department for 14 years, and he is able to communicate in sign language.

Rieder completed his undergraduate degree at Iowa State. While he was a student, he worked as a community service officer at the ISUPD. Following his graduation from Iowa State, he was hired as a full-time police officer. He has worked in several positions within the department, such as a patrol officer, patrol sergeant, lieutenant in charge of special events and training and patrol lieutenant. He currently is the lieutenant in charge of Investigations and Threat Assessment and Management.

Rieder learned some sign language from his aunt growing up.

“My aunt is connected with the deaf community and taught me some sign language in my childhood which piqued my interest,” Rieder said.

Learning as a child made him interested in learning more. He spent four years in high school taking ASL, which has helped him make connections within the community.

Rieder says that while he does not get to use ASL on a daily basis, it is helpful when he does get to utilize it.

“From being called to interpret at another officer’s traffic stop to assisting deaf individuals who walk into the police department lobby or connecting with ISU staff on campus who are deaf, I always enjoy getting to sign with them,” Rieder said.

Rieder said he does his best to educate his fellow officers about the deaf community. One example is that if an officer handcuffs someone deaf, they are no longer able to communicate.

“It is important for all officers to have an awareness of this so we can better serve our community,” Rieder said.

Police officer Karime Massaro speaks both fluent Spanish and English. While Massaro does not utilize her Spanish-speaking skills too often on campus, she is able to help officers all over the state. She has worked closely with the Ames Police Department interpreting for them.

She also helped create a program with the Story County Sheriff’s Office for the Immigration Customs Enforcement. Part of that program includes making sure everyone leaves the office with clean clothing.

She was inspired to join law enforcement because of a school resource officer she knew and thought of as a mentor.

“She always wore sparkly eyeshadow, which I thought was so crazy in a uniform, and I thought, how can you be so pretty and be in uniform?” Massaro said. “She said anybody could do this.”

Massaro said her school resource officer positively influenced her life, helping her fill out her college application and attending her graduation from the academy.

Massaro has been with the ISUPD for five years. One of her favorite aspects of her work is getting to work with the student population, especially with fraternities and sororities.

“I think that broke a lot of barriers, and it just created conversations that were very healthy between the police department and our students,” Massaro said. “I definitely love our student population.”

Looking into the future, Massaro hopes to get certified by the state of Iowa to become an interpreter to help more people.