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Tennessee police struggle with 'No habla Ingles' calls

Tenn. Police, Hispanic Groups to Attack Language Barrier

Introduction and analysis By Scott Buhrmaster
PoliceOne Contributing Editor

Un recuerdo de la crucial naturaleza de la comunicacion clara
(A Reminder of the Crucial Nature of Clear Communication)

Officers are encountering Spanish-speaking subjects on an increasingly frequent basis, as illustrated in the following article. With that fact comes an underscoring of the need for you to take language training seriously and, if it's not provided by your agency, to consider proactively pursuing it on an individual basis. The options for doing so—like buying a basic Spanish manual (ideally one specific to law enforcement) or taking a Spanish class—can be low-cost, but tremendously valuable.

If you need convincing, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. If a Spanish-speaking subject can't understand your commands, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for him to obey them. If you find that your commands are not being followed, particularly those that directly impact your immediate safety (like "Take your hands out of your pocket!" or "Stop! Stay where you are! Don't move!") you must act accordingly in the Interest of your own safety. Be aware, however, that in light of the communication barrier your actions may thrust you into stormy waters in court.

An attorney will quickly point out that it was "impossible" for his client to have responded to your directions because he had no idea what he was being asked to do. Better to be prepared with, at the very least, an armament of basic but essential commands in Spanish to avoid conflict in the field and in court.

2. If you're dealing with more than one individual, you put yourself at an extreme disadvantage if you can't understand what they are saying to each other. As we all know, it is not out of the question for subjects to plot an attack against you using pre-arranged signals, body language or, of course, a language barrier that allows them to plan and time their attack orally, right in front of you ("You get his head, I'll go for his gun").

3. An inability to clearly communicate with a subject distracts you and compromises your ability to quickly control the situation. By ensuring that you're armed with enough fluency in Spanish to promptly establish and maintain control, you avoid the distraction of trying to figure out how to make your commands clear in a non-verbal fashion. You also allow yourself to focus on what's most important: an efficient and safe conclusion to the contact.

Tennessee Police Struggle With 'No Habla Ingles' Calls
By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean (Nashville, Tenn.)

Photo by Matthew H. Starling  
Officer Dylan Kinney is fluent in the language of the streets and in Spanish. At the club El Fandango, he talks to Jose "Party Boy" Noel about how the night is going. The ability to speak Spanish gives Kinney an advantage in being able to talk to Hispanic immigrants who don't know any English. 

With a growing immigrant population and few bilingual officers, Metro Nashville police say language barriers often make it tough to do their jobs

On a Friday night in Nashville's Metro police's south sector, one call after another dispatches patrolman Dylan Kinney to scenes where no one speaks English.

First there's an Iraqi family concerned about a prowler. The preteen daughter shifts from one foot to the other as she stands at the door speaking on behalf of her parents, who are seated, silent, on the sofa.

There's the complaint about the taco stand playing music too loudly, a call to an apartment complex about an arguing couple, who answer the door telling Kinney in Spanish they were sleeping, not fighting. Then there's the routine bar checks. Using his college Spanish and handshakes, Kinney coaxes an intoxicated Spanish-speaker away from the door of a nightclub.

From street-level patrolmen to 911 operators, police say language barriers make it tough to do their jobs.

Police don't keep tabs on the number of non-English speakers they encounter, but patrol officers such as Kinney say that in the past several years it has become a big part of day-to-day policing.

Interactions with non-English speakers o Spanish-speakers chief among them o require more time and resources, overburden the force's few bilingual officers and, on occasion, lead to a lack of resolve on the part of police to enforce the law.

Sometimes, patrol officers say, it's more trouble than it's worth to enforce the law equally for non-English speakers on "victimless" crimes, such as a DUI in which no one is injured. Drunken drivers who don't speak English are sometimes driven home unpunished.

Local advocates say non-English speakers don't always report crimes or cooperate fully in investigations because they believe that police are not there to serve and protect them.

"The biggest issue facing any police department today is building trust and cooperation and there's any of a myriad of things that can get in the way of that," Nashville Police Chief Ronal Serpas said.

"Language and culture is just one more issue we want to be sure we're very aware of so it doesn't become an impediment to success."

South sector

Kinney's patrol car cruises the most diverse slice of Nashville. Metro police's south sector is bounded by Interstate 65 to the west, Murfreesboro Pike to the east, Interstate 40 and the county line.

There are more immigrants concentrated here than in any other part of Nashville. About half of the city's estimated 40,000 immigrants speak little or no English.

Some nights, the only officer patrolling the 500-square-mile county who speaks any Spanish at all is Kinney, 27.

Between his college Spanish, brief academy training and the Spanish for Law Enforcement book stashed in his trunk, Kinney not only tries to make do on his own calls but also gets pulled in as an interpreter for other officers.

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," he said with a laugh.

After midnight, Kinney stops by for a routine bar check at El Fandango on Nolensville Pike. The small bar is full of Hispanic men who stop by for a cold beer and a game of pool.

Geo Mariscal, an armed security guard at the door, is glad to see Kinney. A man has fallen asleep at a table, and Kinney helps Mariscal escort him outside. A friend lets the man sleep it off in the back of a pickup truck.

"At least he's not getting on the road tonight," Kinney said.

Drunken drivers are a big part of the job, say south sector patrol officers.

But when the driver doesn't speak English, the complicated process of assessing whether he's intoxicated can sometimes suck up an entire shift, pulling officers away from their patrol work.

"Sometimes they just can't be bothered," said Sgt. Bobby Hullett, a supervisor in the south sector.

Choosing not to pursue some victimless crimes because of language barriers is by no means unique to Nashville, said Randall Smith, who has trained officers from every major city in the state in intensive police Spanish through a Columbia, Tenn.-based program run by the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

"A lot of officers say quite honestly that if they 'no habla ingles' then they just let them go. It's too hard to deal with," Smith said.

Double duty

Police have been taking steps over the past decade to deal with the growing non-English-speaking population. Officers have access to a telephone language interpretation line. They also ask bystanders and community volunteers to interpret. But the bulk of the burden falls on bilingual officers.

Seventeen out of the about 1,300-member Metro police force speak some Spanish. Two speak Laotian; two speak German. One knows American Sign Language.

Juan Borges is one of the officers who is fluent in Spanish

"I spend 80% of my time interpreting for other officers," Borges said. Like Kinney, Borges can get called to any part of the city during his daytime shift.

It's frustrating, Borges said. Spanish-speaking officers want to advance their own careers, but they're constantly called upon to interpret for colleagues. Nashville, like other departments, also loses Spanish-speaking officers to better paying federal and state law enforcement jobs.

Angel Mariscal, the department's only Spanish-speaking 911 operator, often fields calls from officers to interpret in emergencies. Mariscal is the brother of the El Fandango guard.

He gets frustrated with callers who don't learn English, even after years in the United States.

"Some people don't even try. I had one caller who said she was in this country for 15 years. In a way, I don't get it," said Mariscal, who is originally from Mexico.

Officers also call on Janisco Rodriguez, the force's Spanish-language domestic violence social worker. She sometimes translates at crime scenes, and she also has helped train officers not to use children at domestic violence scenes as interpreters.

"I would read reports and they would say, 'Children helped officer translate,' " Rodriguez said. "This is part of Hispanic culture. They go to the store and children translate. They go to the bank and children translate. Obviously, it's not appropriate in these situations."

Rodriguez rarely sees that happening now, but officers say children are often called on to interpret in situations where there is no domestic violence.

Police also rely on informal community networks to help them get their jobs done.

Chris Benach is one of the officers who carries extra business cards for Internacional Servicio, a storefront private company on Haywood Lane.

He hands them out along with traffic tickets and occasionally escorts people trying to fill out a police report for a stolen car or other problem to the office, where owner Sabrina Jacal assists for free.

"I get five or 10 calls a day when the person says that 'the police officer handed me your card along with a ticket and I don't know why,' " said Jacal. People who come to her often don't know they need to pay a ticket and don't understand that failing to pay means escalating fines or even the loss of a license. Officers also call on Jacal to help fill out police reports and make late-night calls to interpret over the phone.

Attorneys question the practice of referring people to a private, quasi-legal agency.

"If she tells them what they need to do with a traffic ticket, that's giving legal advice, and that's practicing law without a license," said Jerry Gonzalez, an attorney and Hispanic leader.

The better alternative, Gonzalez said, would be to translate citations into Spanish and to work with non-profits that already serve immigrants.

In the absence of more help, police say, good community policing means using whatever resources are at hand.

"You've got to be creative when you're dealing with non-English speakers," Benach said.

A matter of trust

Late on Kinney's overnight shift, he drives by Northwest Avenue, a small side street parallel to Nolensville Pike.

Plastered across the International Ballroom nightclub, he spies recent graffiti. "BP" is scrawled across the building. It stands for "Brown Pride," the biggest Hispanic gang in Nashville, Kinney says.

International Ballroom owner Juan Martinez said the graffiti is a nuisance, but he had no plans to file a police report.

"One of the reasons we don't call police on every deal is I don't want customers to get nervous," Martinez said. "A lot don't speak English; they've gotten pulled over and they don't know what to do."

Martinez said he himself was sent to jail in 1986 because he couldn't respond in English to the patrolman who pulled him over.

The other reason he doesn't call police is that he doesn't believe they'll help him.

Hispanic community leaders say many share that distrust, not only because of the language barrier but also because of bad experiences with police in their home countries and fear about their immigration status.

Sometimes, "it's much more trouble than it's worth reporting to the police," said Yuri Cunza, spokesman for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Spanish-language La Noticia newspaper.

Metro gang unit head Sgt. Gary Kemper says that kind of distrust is a major obstacle to solving crime.

"That's the big problem we have with the Hispanic community or any other not from here is talking to us," Kemper said. "We've had meetings with Hispanic leaders about language problems and trust problems. It's hard to convince people we're here to help."

At a community forum organized by Hispanic leaders in February, Chief Serpas announced he was launching "El Protector," a program police use in California and Washington state, to help improve that relationship.

The program brings police and Hispanic leaders together in regular meetings. They examine ways the police department, strapped for cash and resources, and the community, wanting more access to police, can find solutions together.

Serpas also is sending many of his officers to a weeklong, federally funded Spanish language-training course in May that most other departments across the state have taken.

In the meantime, Benach, who plans to learn Spanish, says he and officers like him will keep trying their best.

"Because they don't speak English and you don't speak their language, it doesn't matter," he said. "You've just got to do your job."

Police to hold forum for Hispanic residents

To promote better relations between Metro police and south Nashville Hispanic residents, Hispanic groups, police and Metro agencies are hosting a "listening forum" April 19.

It is the second such forum planned between police and community members. In February the first forum drew about 100 people and had sometimes-heated exchanges.

The forums are sponsored by the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia, the Mayor's Office, the Metro Human Relations Commission, the Scarritt-Bennett Center, Hispanic Link Consulting and the Police Department.

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