Philly's police faulted for handling of language barriers

By Gaiutra Bahadur   

The U.S. Justice Department has found fault with the way that Philadelphia police handle language barriers, forcing the department to change its ways or risk losing federal funding.

In a city where one in five residents speaks another language at home, the department has no directive spelling out what steps officers must take when they encounter people with limited English.

The city does not tell them they have to provide interpreters - or how. And it does not direct them to translate important information, such as Miranda warnings, into key languages.

In the vacuum, police rely on the officers' word that they are bilingual. The department has not trained or certified them to be interpreters. And it has used bystanders and family members, even children, as linguistic go-betweens.

Those failings could violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate based on national origin.

After a random review in 2004, the Justice Department told Philadelphia police it was concerned about the force's language practices. The agency has been auditing recipients of federal grants to see whether they comply with a 2000 order directing them to ensure that language barriers do not lead to denial of services.

As a result, the Police Department has started to implement a policy that dictates whether, when and how interpreters and translations must be provided. Immigrant advocates say that, if followed, the policy could thrust Philadelphia out front as police nationwide wrestle with growing diversity.

"The stakes are very high," said Jonathan Ramos, president of SALEA, the Spanish American Law Enforcement Association. "The wrong decision can cost somebody their life."

Since 1989, the Police Department has had access to the Language Line, a telephone interpreting service started by a police officer from San Jose, Calif., and also used by Philadelphia's health centers and other agencies.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 65,000 city residents speak English poorly or not at all. And immigrants are disproportionately crime victims.

Still, the Police Department uses the service less than once a day. Since January 2002, it has called the language line an average of 25 times per month, for an average of about 7 minutes a day. (It costs the city $1.30 a minute to use a Spanish interpreter by phone, and $1.38 a minute for other languages.)

Philadelphia police, compared with the thousands of law-enforcement agencies that contract with Language Line L.L.C., use the service lightly, said Louis Provenzano, a senior vice president.

Charles Brennan, deputy commissioner for police communications, said the Language Line numbers were low because Philadelphia's 911 network is staffed with enough Spanish speakers 24 hours a day, seven days a week; because some immigrant groups don't report being victimized; and because police often find someone on the street to interpret for them.

"We have a big mobile force out there," he said. "That's why we don't see [the service used] as much as [in] other city agencies."

The Police Advisory Commission, the official civilian oversight agency since 1994, said language barriers accounted for about 5 percent of the 200 complaints filed every year. The organization has fielded fewer than 10 complaints from Asians in its history, yet language barriers may account for that.

Immigrant advocates are troubled by how little the Language Line is used. They also are concerned about cases where police have told victims to bring their own interpreters or have drafted family members, bystanders and, unwittingly, perpetrators to interpret, said Regan Cooper, head of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.

Last month, for example, police stopped a Mexican immigrant because his purple bicycle matched one used by the Fairmount Park rapist. They ended up relying on a photographer for the Spanish newspaper Al Día who rushed to the scene to help after hearing about it on a police scanner.

Most officers don't see that as a problem, although federal guidelines frown on the practice as rife with potential conflicts of interest, inaccuracy, and embarrassment.

"We just want to do our job," Sgt. Mark Overwise said. "And in an emergency situation, you're not thinking this woman might be embarrassed if her daughter translates for her."

Overwise's district, the Fourth, is a hub for Mexican and Cambodian immigrants and late-night, oft-robbed Chinese takeouts. Language barriers often pose a problem.

"You have the Language Line, but when you get to know people where you work, you can rely on the community, too," he said. "Most of the time, there's a family member we can find."

Advocates say police also often assume an immigrant has enough English, then miss important details. Chhen Heng, president of the Cambodian Youth Association, said inaccurate police reports involving Cambodians are common in the Fourth District, where only one officer speaks Khmer.

Peter Bloom, founder of the Mexican community group Juntos, said aggravated assaults often got reported as simple assaults because the police officer didn't know that a bottle, a chair, a knife or a gun was involved.

"If all you're able to communicate is, 'He hit me,' are you fully communicating?" Bloom asked.

The struggle to communicate grows ever more critical for police departments, large and small, as communities change.

Last month, Bensalem police found a Ukrainian woman, bruised and unconscious, on the banks of Neshaminy Creek. A TV alert ultimately drew her daughter, but without that, the department would have had to rely on its Russian community to help.

The Bucks County township of 60,000 has seen its Russian, Indian and Latino populations swell, far outpacing their numbers among police. Of 84 officers, only one speaks another language, Spanish, said Lt. T.J. Campellone.

In Philadelphia, where 450 officers say they know another language, staffing to meet the needs has still been hard to accomplish.

"In the past, it's always been haphazard," said Gene Blagmond, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police. "There really haven't been enough [bilingual officers] to go around."

Just ask Officer Catherine Fan. Until May, she was the only Mandarin speaker assigned to Chinatown. Since she was transferred, only one Chinese speaker works the district, and he speaks Cantonese - not Mandarin or Fujianese, the dialects of the newest immigrants.

In her 11 years on the force, not a day has gone by without Fan being called on to interpret. Cape May police called a few years ago when smugglers dumped shivering Chinese immigrants off the Shore. Atco called when officials needed to talk to Coach-bag bootleggers they had busted. And Upper Darby calls too often to count the times.

Federal guidelines say that, in most cases, the best interpreters are bilingual officers at the scene. But there are obstacles to a system in which Spanish speakers work in neighborhoods where Spanish speakers live.

Officers are not allowed to work where they live. And some Latino officers resent being posted to the barrio once they've moved out, SALEA's Ramos said.

"When you move, where do you get sent? Back to the 'hood," he said. "The good thing is, it works. The bad thing is, they keep you too long, and you burn out."

With the help of advocates and the city Managing Director's Office, police have drafted a directive to deal with the problems found by the feds.

It bars the use of informal interpreters, especially children, except in emergencies. It states that police must offer free interpreters to all limited-English speakers, and details which type of interpretation - in person or by phone, contracted or in-house - can be used, and which *must* be used in certain situations.

Under the policy, police would maintain a list of bilingual officers tested for language ability, then trained and certified as interpreters. So far, 120 officers have volunteered, and 41 have been trained, according to the city.

Every officer also is to be trained on how and when to work with an interpreter. The directive also sets up an office to decide which vital documents must be translated, and into what languages.

Still, Ramos says the policy does not go far enough. He calls for police to hire more bilingual officers and pay them extra.

Some law-enforcement agencies, including those in Los Angeles and Houston, pay police more if they demonstrate they can speak other languages - $1,800 a year in Houston, and up to 5 percent more in Los Angeles.

Philadelphia does not. Nor do Miami and New York.

Police brass say they want to hire more bilingual officers.

"It's not for lack of trying," said Chief Inspector James Tiano. The department has advertised in Asian newspapers.

"We're obviously better off than we were in the past," Colarulo said. "We're not where we want to be, but we're heading in the right direction."

 Philadelphia Inquirer (

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