San Francisco: Interpreting the situation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 24 13:49:46 UTC 2007

Interpreting the situation
Philip Hwang, Luna Yasui

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Every day, San Francisco's police officers render life-saving
services. Most of us take it for granted that in an emergency, we can
pick up the phone, call the police and help will soon be on the way.
For the 100,000 San Francisco residents who are limited-English
proficient, accessing police services is not so easy. Language
barriers prevent many residents from talking to or getting help from
the police. In recent years, the San Francisco Office of Citizens'
Complaints and community groups have received numerous complaints from
frustrated residents. Police officers have told Spanish- and
Chinese-speaking residents that they must speak English. Children have
been interrogated without a parent or interpreter present. Police have
relied on bystanders to communicate with crime victims, instead of
utilizing bilingual officers or the department's phone interpreter
service. In the domestic violence context, police have unknowingly
relied on batterers to interpret for their victims.

Language barriers have resulted in tragic consequences. In 2003 and
again in 2004, two mentally ill, limited-English proficient Asian
Americans, Xi Tiao Wu and Jian Ming Yu, were shot by San Francisco
police officers. The shootings were a result of miscommunications that
could have been prevented, if qualified interpreters had been readily
available. Effective communication is essential to effective law
enforcement. In a city as linguistically diverse as San Francisco, a
clear language access policy is crucial for successful police work.
Police can't interview witnesses, track suspects or solve crimes when
language barriers prevent them from communicating effectively.
Language barriers can deter individuals from reporting crimes or
approaching the police, which undermines the effectiveness of police.

The right to access public services, regardless of language ability,
is not a radical or novel idea. It is enshrined in federal, state and
local laws. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated an audit
of the San Francisco Police Department and met with the department to
ensure that it is in compliance with federal language access
regulations. The U.S. Justice Department and other police departments
offered their language access policies to San Francisco as models.
More than a year ago, civil-rights advocates teamed up with the San
Francisco Office of Citizens' Complaints to propose new procedures to
the police department. The key elements of our proposal are
straightforward: Provide clear procedures for police officers who need
to access an interpreter. Make sure the policy is realistic and allows
officers to address exigent circumstances where life and safety are
threatened. Restrict the use of children, minors, bystanders and
family members as interpreters. Finally, designate an officer as a
language access liaison to oversee training and implementation.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department met again with the San
Francisco Police Department -- three years after initiating its audit.
The Police Department promised that things had changed. Yet, the
Justice Department heard a starkly different message from the
community. Agencies, such as Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach,
reported that they continue to see cases in which police do not use
interpreters to communicate with limited-English proficient crime
victims and witnesses. At a recent community event, Chinese-speaking
residents formed a long line to report crimes directly to Chief
Heather Fong, who is bilingual, because of the lack of interpreters
and bilingual officers within the department.

Every day that goes by without a comprehensive language access policy
is a day where crimes may go unreported or unsolved, due to language
barriers. We can't afford any more delays. We need a comprehensive
policy now. Providing language assistance is not rocket science. It
only requires a clear commitment to the principles of equality and the
belief that good policing requires effective communication.

Philip Hwang is a staff attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil
Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Luna Yasui is the policy
director for Chinese for Affirmative Action.

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list