01/11/2010

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.

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

Back to previous page