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January 11, 2010
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Language barrier a burden for Houston police, public

Only 20% of HPD officers are bilingual in a city of global dialects

By James Pinkerton and Meg Loucks
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Police officers arriving at a murder scene at a north side apartment complex could not speak Spanish to the residents, so a cameraman from a local TV station translated until bilingual officers arrived hours later.

It is a situation that plays out across Houston several times a week as officers who speak only English rely on wrecker drivers, bystanders or victims' children to act as translators if bilingual officers are not available.

Expert Perspective

The tactical benefit — make that necessity — of being bilingual can’t be overstated. Even if you’re not fully fluent in another language that’s common in your area, knowing how to issue key commands like, Stop! Police! Drop the weapon! Show me your hands! is an absolute must when it comes to your safety and survival.

1. Take the time to learn. If you’re lucky enough to be in an area that offers a financial reward for learning another language, good for you. Do it. If you’re not, do it anyway!

2. Pay attention to dialects. It’s important to understand that many languages have several ways of saying the same thing. With that, it’s important to double check with a few other sources to make sure that the words and phrases you’re learning are those that will be understood and accepted on the street.

3. Practice on your own. As with anything, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

4. Make sure you’re covering all the linguistic bases.

Read more: It's tactical (and practical) to be bilingual

Despite a Houston Police Department program that pays $1.9 million annually in extra pay to 1,046 bilingual-certified officers — nearly 20 percent of the 5,300-officer force — there are frequent situations when officers cannot speak with the residents they serve, officers say. Of those, 904 officers are certified as fluent in Spanish. Other certifications include officers who can speak Vietnamese, two dialects of Chinese and Korean.

The issue of language fluency is crucial in Houston, an international city that long has been a magnet for immigrants from around the world. For example, the Houston Independent School District has identified about 100 languages spoken in students' homes, a district spokesman said.

Critics say an insufficient number of bilingual officers can cause trauma to crime victims, burdens the bilingual officers with greater case loads, and endangers officers who cannot immediately communicate with criminal suspects.

Read full storyLanguage barrier adds burden for HPD, public

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